KIRK HONEYCUTT/THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
Iraq mostly has been a nonstarter at the boxoffice, but this is Matt Damon, Greengrass and the "Bourne" team reunited on another breathless venture into ticking-clock urgency. So Universal should easily overcome that hurdle to rack up considerable theatrical coin in North America and overseas.
Drawing on his years as a British television journalist covering global conflicts for ITV, Greengrass brings a cinema verite style to his thrillers. He makes these movies look as if a guerrilla camera crew has somehow tagged along with a movie's protagonist to catch key moments in an unfolding story as it explodes in the character's face.
In Hitchcock terms, the movie has both a goal and a MacGuffin. The goal is the determination by U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) to discover the reason why his team of inspectors comes up empty every time commanders send them to find chemical weapons in the Iraqi desert. The MacGuffin is a small notebook an Iraqi general grabbed four months earlier as the U.S. invasion began. It contains the addresses of Baathist safe houses in the Baghdad area.
Endangering the lives of his soldiers to hit a target, which Pentagon "intel" has fingered as a storage site for MWDs, and again finding nothing, Miller wants answers. Returning to Baghdad, he encounters three people who could supply them: Defense Intelligence agent Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), CIA station chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) and Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan). Miller doesn't like what he hears.
All the intelligence comes from a single source. This source has confirmed Dayne's many stories about Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of MWDs and now pinpoints the sites Miller's team fruitlessly searches. Then Miller runs across an individual who does have accurate information.
A local, English-speaking Iraqi who calls himself Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) risks his life to approach Miller to tell him that key Iraqi army figures, all wanted by coalition forces, are meeting in a house nearby. This proves to be true. But in a firefight, the Iraqi general escapes, leaving behind that notebook.
This is briefly in Miller's possession, but then a strange thing happens: A Special Forces unit under Lt. Col. Briggs (Jason Isaacs) abruptly moves in to snatch Miller's prisoners. Miller is forced to slip the notebook to Freddy.
Aren't we all on the same side, Miller wonders? CIA agent Brown cautions him against being naive. It now dawns on Miller that he has stumbled onto a cover-up. The race is on to find the general, who seemingly is the all-knowing source for much of the government's intelligence -- and the reporter's stories. Not everyone wants the general taken alive.
Damon, in motion the entire movie, acts as a magnet, drawing every detail of the story and its character into his orbit. Although there might be a touch of naivete to his character's determination to ferret out the truth, there is a Jimmy Stewart aspect, too. He positively will not let anyone, no matter where he belongs in the chain of command or how far "off the reservation" his character drifts, stand in the way of the truth.
The Brown vs. Poundstone dynamics -- the "dinosaur" CIA veteran and the intelligence agent bringing Neo-Con ideology to the Middle East with little thought for the actual needs of a postwar nation -- represent a dramatic standoff. The journalist, with the ghost of the New York Times' Judith Miller lurking in the background, supplies one key piece of information in the troubling mosaic the protagonist puts together.
Abdalla, operating with a prosthetic leg and a battered old Toyota, represents the modern Arab, who watches in dismay as overconfident Americans try to snatch his rebellion and country away from him.
The movie takes its inspiration from a nonfiction book by former Washington Post Baghdad chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." It's not, strictly speaking, an adaptation because Brian Helgeland's script is fiction. Rather, the book supplies something of a beacon for the filmmakers, guiding them in their interpretation of the folly of ignorance and ambition emanating from inside the Green Zone, a safety area including the old Republican Palace where American decision-makers remain cut off from the Iraqi reality.
Greengrass and his "Bourne" team -- cinematographer Barry Ackroyd worked with him on "United 93" -- do a magnificent job of turning locations in Spain, Morocco and the U.K. into a realistic Iraq, a region tumbled into chaos and devastating destruction to its infrastructure.
That chaos tips over into the action of the movie as the film hurtles from one destination to another in a race against time. John Powell's propulsive music eggs the action ever forward, and Christopher Rouse's rapid-fire editing nervously stitches the stunts, chases, fights and confrontations together. It's a remarkable film.
Opens: Friday, March 12 (Universal)
Production: Working Title in association with Studio Canal and Relativity Media
Cast: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Khalid Abdalla, Jason Isaacs
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Inspired by the book by: Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Producers: Paul Greengrass, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin
Executive producers: Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Dominic Watkins
Music: John Powell
Costume designer: Sammy Sheldon
Editor: Christopher Rouse
Rated R, 114 minutes
A Universal release presented in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media of a Working Title production. Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin, Paul Greengrass. Executive producers, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin. Co-producers, Mairi Bett, Michael Bronner, Christopher Rouse, Kate Solomon. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Screenplay, Brian Helgeland, inspired by the book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.
Roy Miller - Matt Damon
Clark Poundstone - Greg Kinnear
Martin Brown - Brendan Gleeson
Lawrie Dayne - Amy Ryan
Freddy - Khalid Abdalla
Briggs - Jason Isaacs
So vivid and convincingly realistic is the physical depiction of Baghdad in the early days of the American occupation that the introduction of trumped-up thriller elements feels like an unwanted intrusion in "Green Zone." A companion piece to "United 93" as a portrayal of American reaction -- this time misguided -- to 9/11, Paul Greengrass' high-voltage action drama does a better job of defining where the U.S. went hopelessly wrong on Iraq than it does in creating a plausible suspense scenario. The acclaim for "The Hurt Locker" notwithstanding, the commercial jinx of Iraq War stories has yet to be broken, although, with a vigorously virile Matt Damon leading the charge, this Universal release should go a bit further at the B.O. than its predecessors.
Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have devised a storyline, involving a committed but quickly skeptical soldier's search for weapons of mass destruction, that comfortably doubles as an incisive critique of the false premise upon which the Bush Administration based its invasion. The interlocking of form and content remains intact for at least the first half of the picture, but once Damon's one-man truth squad goes off the reservation and starts behaving too much like Jason Bourne for comfort, the film begins not only spilling more blood but also leaking crucial credibility.
Notably, the picture is credited as having been "inspired" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's superb book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" rather than "based" on it. Having covered the Middle East and the Iraq War for the Washington Post, Chandrasekaran wrote a pointed nonfiction tome that detailed the arrogant, absurd and tragic aspects of the Americans' behavior, naming names and documenting everything, but with a tone that often recalled the darkly comic vein of "Catch-22" or "MASH."
This prompts the question of whether the public is ready for a bleakly humorous cinematic treatment of Iraq. The answer to that is, in the right hands, any subject is fair game for humor. But Greengrass is very far from being that sort of filmmaker. Employing his customary whiplash style of shooting and editing, he wants to plunk the viewer right down in the hellish anarchy that Baghdad soon became in 2003 after the Americans rolled in and were faced with far greater challenges on the ground than they anticipated.
Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) has a single objective: to find the WMD the U.S. government is certain Saddam Hussein has hidden in various sites around Iraq. As every location he and his small unit search turns up empty, it doesn't take long for Miller to conclude there's something wrong with Pentagon intelligence. But the last guy who wants to hear this is Washington's newly arrived viceroy, Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), who can't be bothered with doubts that might interfere with his mission to reshape Iraq into a Middle Eastern bastion of American-style democracy.
Also on the scene is Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), whose articles have long seconded the administration's conviction about WMD due to intel provided by a confidential source called "Magellan." Amusingly, the character who is depicted in the most favorable light, in that he recognizes the game for what it is, is old CIA hand Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson). Grizzled and cynical like a character out of Graham Greene, Brown is derided by Poundstone as a "dinosaur," but he provides Miller with an unlikely source of support and backdoor assistance.
From the opening scenes, which first depict Iraqi officials' flight in the wake of "shock and awe," then Miller's initial mission as his men take out a sniper firing from an alleged WMD hideaway, Greengrass again asserts himself as the foremost practitioner of "you are there" filmmaking. Locations in three different countries -- Spain, Morocco and the U.K. -- are brilliantly integrated to rep Baghdad, Saddam's grandiose palace and surrounding areas, and production designer Dominic Watkins deserves a special salute for the verisimilitude of what's onscreen at every moment.
Would that the invented scenario were as entirely convincing. Once Poundstone realizes Miller is no longer onboard with the administration's program, the gung-ho soldier is forced to go rogue. Increasingly functioning as a proxy private detective or investigative reporter, Miller, aided by a wonderful local character named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), is able to pursue the Magellan mystery when he locates a cabal of former Saddam insiders, leading to a frenetic and rather protracted nocturnal action climax that feels far too concocted as a genre film payoff to play well here. A number of far-fetched coincidences and contrivances add to the undesired impression of narrative artifice.
Press notes quote Greengrass to the effect that "Green Zone" was not designed to promote any political agenda -- a disingenuous remark, to say the least, when his film concludes with a shot of a giant oil refinery. Basically, the picture is the first narrative feature to have digested and synthesized the essential information expressed in Charles Ferguson's superlative 2007 docu "No End in Sight," about the misconceptions, miscalculations and misrepresentations involved in Bush's Iraq policies. And while the usual disclaimer insists that all the characters herein are fictitious, it's crystal-clear that Poundstone is Paul Brenner and Dayne is former New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
The jittery camerawork, familiar from Greengrass' previous work and here implemented by Barry Ackroyd, achieves visceral reactions at times, but at other moments one yearns for the sort of visual sharpness with which similar scenes of urban combat were shot in "Black Hawk Down." Visual effects make possible some exceptional panoramic vistas of Baghdad under siege.
Camera (color, widescreen), Barry Ackroyd; editor, Christopher Rouse; music, John Powell; production designer, Dominic Watkins; art directors, Mark Bartholomew (U.K.), Mark Swain (Spain), Frederic Evard (Morocco); set decorator, Lee Sandales; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Simon Hayes; supervising sound editor, Oliver Tarner; re-recording mixers, Michael Prestwood Smith, Mark Taylor; visual effects supervisor, Peter Chiang; digital visual effects, Double Negative; special effects supervisor, Joss Williams; stunt coordinators, Markos Rounthwaite, Gary Connery (U.K.); assistant director, Chris Carreras; second unit directors, Chris Forster, Dan Bradley; second unit camera, Florian Emmerich; additional editor, Mark Fitzgerald; casting, Amanda Mackey, Cathy Sandrich Gelfond, Dan Hubbard, John Hubbard. Reviewed at the Landmark, Los Angeles, March 1, 2010. (In Film Comment Selects, New York -- closer.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 114 MIN.
With: Igal Naor, Raad Rawi, Said Faraj, Michael O'Neill.