Sometimes a director’s worth isn’t measured by how turns a strong script into a brilliant picture, but by how he makes an entertaining movie out of nothing. By that measure, Green Zone director Paul Greengrass is one of the best filmmakers working today. His latest film is like the next chapter in the Bourne franchise but without interesting characters or a thoughtful narrative. Matt Damon plays a rogue soldier looking for the truth about WMD in Iraq. The film doesn’t embrace the absurdity of how the Iraq War began or the disgusting cost in blood and treasure that resulted. What it does embrace is so much energy that you’ll be too electrified to notice how much you’re missing.
Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is getting frustrated in his attempts to find weapons of mass destruction and turning up empty handed. He’s a damn good soldier and knows how to instruct his squad efficiently and effectively. But after a third failed attempt to turn up any WMD, Miller begins questioning the intelligence about WMD locations and begins a hunt for “Magellan”*, the source of the WMD intel. CIA analyst Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) also knows something’s not right about the intel and teams up with Miller, but standing in their way is Pentagon asshole* Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) who is a gung-ho, war-first-ask-questions-later neo-con that doesn’t want the truth about Magellan to come out.
Green Zone‘s first problem is that Miller is a character who is willing to risk his life for the truth, but we don’t know why the truth is so important to him. We never learn if he lost friends on one of his previous missions to find WMD or if he’s made it his goal in life to prove Col. Nathan Jessop wrong. Miller’s personal motivation isn’t intentionally ambiguous. It’s non-existent.
Another problem is that the film undermines the uncovering Magellan won’t change anything because America has already invaded and the real damage is being done in the Green Zone by bureaucrats who are out of their depths. Green Zone tries to double-back and tie the discovery of Magellan to the possibility of stopping the insurgency before it starts, but that accomplishment isn’t credible because characters mention how the infrastructure of Iraq is gone and we can see that the people in the Green Zone tasked with fixing the country have no idea what they’re doing.
But rather than dwell on the futility of our Middle-East misadventure, Green Zone loads up on the action scenes and the genius of Paul Greengrass is he shoots and cuts every moment in the film as if it were a set piece. Miller speaking with Brown about information he obtained from a detainee has the same urgency of Miller chasing down a key witness. The energy Greengrass gets out of this film is incredible and you leave with the feeling that he could make a movie about filing your taxes and it would be one of the most exciting films of the year.
And yet at the edges of Green Zone are threads of a more fulfilling movie. A group of callous special ops agents led by Jason Isaacs could double for the involvement of the mercenaries of Blackwater. A reporter (played by Amy Ryan) repeating the government’s claims about WMD rather than investigating those claims would work as an examination of our media’s complicity in the war. The government employees and their military protection having fun by the pool in Saddam’s palace could stand as a symbol of our indulgence and callousness in our occupation of Iraq. But Green Zone isn’t an absurdist dark comedy or an exploration of the moral complexities caused by a war that’s based on a lie. Paul Greengrass has crafted a thrill-ride and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the subtext he brought to The Bourne Supremacy and especially The Bourne Ultimatum is at best an afterthought in Green Zone.
*Every time they mentioned “Magellan”, I thought back to the scene in In the Loop where Malcolm Tucker exclaims, “I don’t make up the names!” when asked who the intelligence source, “Iceman” is.
**I forget his official title.