Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is posted to Iraq to justify the US invasion by finding weapons of mass destruction. With his search proving fruitless, he starts asking tricky questions, and soon even his own side are out to kill him...
Like Halley's Comet, Wembley Stadium and Peter North, Green Zone has been a long time coming. Three years in the making, it’s been subject to rewrites and reshoots and rumours.
But this is the standard MO of Paul Greengrass: cinema like sculpture — chiselling and chipping ’til the image emerges. And
when it does, as we’ve come to expect, it’s striking. So, three years since Bourne’s Ultimatum, since Greengrass and Damon sent that amnesiac assassin on his last (ever?) adventure, is this Bourne in Baghdad? Well, he looks a lot like him. Damon’s Miller is tough, able and keeps asking questions. The primary one isn’t, of course, “Who am I?” Here it’s, “Where are they?” “They” are weapons of mass destruction, the reason given by Bush and Blair to justify the invasion of Iraq...
With Tony having recently given an Oscar-worthy performance (OTT, grandiose, self-satisfied) at the Chilcot Inquiry into what the hell we were doing there, Green Zone’s delay has made
it, paradoxically, feel more relevant. Greengrass has always had an eye for hot-button issues. Back in the ’80s — when Hollywood was as far away from him as Mars — he co-wrote the book Spycatcher, an inside story of MI5 so explosive Thatcher tried to ban it. He learnt his storytelling trade on current affairs show World In Action. He caught the Bourne producers’ eye with Irish Troubles drama Bloody Sunday.
So, when he read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s superb account of the struggles and strain of the ill-prepared occupation — Imperial Life In The Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone — he must have felt a kindred spirit at work. He then proceeded to tear
it up. Because a faithful adaptation of Chandrasekaran’s book would have played more like All The President’s Men meets The Office, with the addition of roadside bombs.
Instead, Greengrass has married politics with popcorn. Yes, Green Zone has substance, but it is, first and foremost, a breakneck action film — tense, frenetic and exciting.
Damon is perfectly cast, not just for his now undoubted physical prowess — he can knock heads with anyone, come out bloody but unbowed — but because of his integrity. It was crucial to cast someone who wouldn’t showboat through the slaughter, reducing the real-life tragedy to dashing heroics and glib action prowess. Here is an actor who shows the blows not just to his body, but to his mind. He is playing a patriot — not a left-leaning hand-wringer, but a soldier determined to do his duty, struggling to believe the incompetence or malice that surrounds him.
In that sense of bewilderment — of innocence under attack — Green Zone shares as much with Wrong Man thrillers such as The 39 Steps and Three Days Of The Condor as it does with contemporary conflict pics such as The Hurt Locker. Although it does share its cinematographer (Barry Ackroyd) with that last movie, and its pure sense of immediacy. You’re bustled, bundled and blown through the action, dropped onto the streets of Baghdad and left fending off fear.
Amy Ryan, so brilliant in The Wire and Gone Baby Gone, is frustratingly wasted here, her journalist considerably more compelling in the first draft than the caricature of the final cut. Otherwise, though, Damon is supported by a superb cast. Jason Issacs’ hardnut nemesis is a terrific foe, a man equally able and introduced in a fantastically economic sequence that ends with Damon flat on his ass. And Brendan Gleeson, consistently the best thing in everything he does (In Bruges and this month’s Perrier’s Bounty in particular) provides both handy exposition and tantalising complexity as a CIA operative.
The flaw of the film is the inevitable need — in a big-budget, American-financed film — to provide clarity and some closure. There’s an unshakeable sense that degrees of ambiguity have been sacrificed in the protracted production — as if certain characters have been forced to become black or white, when the primary colour in Green Zone really should be grey.
There is a murky morality in the whole sorry saga of Iraq. Some of the motivation is money, some of it is a genuine — if confused — desire for good. Reel can’t quite match real in portraying this aspect, but Green Zone will nevertheless provoke thoughts as well as thrills — it’s an honest, compelling, smart blockbuster that dares to deliver on several levels. And in that, at the very least, star and director are bang on target.
Bourne goes epic. A wham-bam actioner, but its pointed political subtext ensures Damon and Greengrass deliver their most provocative mission yet.