Lacking Intelligence

The ever-cool Matt Damon can't salvage this jumpy, paint-by-numbers Iraq war movie

It's admirable when a director tries to go beyond just blowing things up in a war movie (as Kathryn Bigelow did successfully with The Hurt Locker)—but good intentions are never enough.

Witness the thrown-together optical assault that is Green Zone. Watching this film creates the sensation that your eyes are little soccer balls being kicked around by hyperactive gremlins inside your skull.

Director Paul "Camera Mounts and Tripods Are for Pussies!" Greengrass makes another one of his jumpy, handheld films, as if he's afraid to let the camera come to rest on star Matt Damon. (They also worked together on two Bourne movies.) Green Zone has an intriguing message at its core, but Greengrass botches the delivery by getting a little too spastic with the camera, and far too heavy-handed in the transmission of that message (that America fucked up royally in Iraq). You'll either be vomiting from motion sickness or the overwrought, overcooked dialogue.

Damon, in what was surely a decent performance before the cameraman got ants in his pants, plays Miller, an Army soldier hunting for weapons of mass destruction in the early days of the Iraq war. When intelligence leads his crew to toilet-part warehouses and machinery strewn with bird shit, he gets a sinking feeling that he's fighting a war based upon lies.

While Miller and his team are digging, a townie named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) shows up claiming that he saw the notorious Gen. Al Rawi (Igal Naor) having a meeting in a nearby house. Rawi is the jack of clubs in the Americans' "most wanted" deck of cards, so Miller decides to defy orders and go on a covert mission. He narrowly misses capturing the target, and finds himself plunged into all kinds of intrigue.

This is not a film that generally portrays American soldiers as crazy assholes, like Brian De Palma's god-awful Redacted did. Actually, this one shows soldiers as some of the only Americans with a clue about what was going on. It's refreshing to see an Army soldier treated with deserved dignity in regard to modern war. Not all soldiers are suicidal bomb dismantlers or gangbang rapists.

This film's main villains aren't necessarily the snipers taking shots at American soldiers. The big baddie is Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a Pentagon official who seems to know that the rules were bent a little when it came to accepting and verifying WMD tips. He's essentially pitted against the CIA, represented by Brendan Gleeson in a strange role as an honorable man seeking the truth and conspiring with Miller to find it. Of course, George W. Bush is the kingpin, and his bungled "Mission Accomplished!" speech gets its moment in the movie.

Once the main action is set into motion, a lot of it takes place in the dark, or in cramped spaces. These situations are not friendly to handheld cinematography, yet that's the route Greengrass follows. This is his attempt at realism, as he tries to put the viewer into the action. This can work in short blasts, but for long, extended sequences, it feels like the cheap way out.

Also, how about some lighting? Don't these Hollywood guys have people who know how to turn on a lamp or two? Some of the shots here are dark to the point of graininess, and I found myself squinting, to no avail. I have a new wrinkle in between my eyes, courtesy of this film.

By the time Damon and Kinnear have their final square-off, Green Zone has veered into pure cartoon territory. The confrontation actually culminates with Miller trying to beat up Poundstone and getting held back by guards. It plays like Poundstone is the school bully, and Miller is pissed off because Poundstone stole his lunch money on the playground.

There are times when Damon makes all of this work, because, well, he's Matt Damon, and he's just sort of cool. He does a nice gravelly thing with his voice, as if it's hoarse from barking orders at fellow soldiers or screaming at Greengrass because he's lost in some dark, unlit corridor and just stubbed his toe. Damon has good chops, and the role was right for him.

It's Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland who dropped the ball. In addition to the messed-up action sequences and paint-by-numbers political intrigue, they toss off a boring depiction of the press. Amy Ryan plays a New York Times reporter who prints the government's lies. Ryan, a reliable actress, is just sort of there, doing nothing of real consequence and having no impact on the movie.

This film lacks focus and feels like a video-game junkie wrote it after reading about the Iraq war on Wikipedia. Like the soldiers put on the ground fruitlessly searching for WMDs in Baghdad, Green Zone lacks the proper intelligence.


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