Thursday, March 11, 2010

'Green Zone' peddles yesterday's news

Matt Damon searches for the truth in Green Zone.

Green Zone, which deals with the early stages of the war in Iraq, winds up firing more blanks than expected. The problem: The movie revolves around a discovery - there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- that's lost much of its punch. Put another way: It's difficult to watch director Paul Greengrass' urgently presented drama without wishing it would tell us something we didn't already know.

The atmosphere feels right and the chaos of Baghdad after the initial stages of the invasion couldn't be more convincing, but the movie's focus on an Army Chief Warrant Officer (Matt Damon) -- a non-com who's trying to discover why his squad has been given so much faulty intelligence -- turns the story into a frenzied quest for a truth we know before the curtain rises.

Make no mistake, though, there are some mind-blowing sights here. Greengrass does an excellent job of showing the disconnect between the foot soldiers who are living through life-and-death scenarios in the streets of Baghdad and the bigwigs who congregate in the Green Zone, a safe haven replete with swimming pools and a veranda for cocktails. The Club Med-like atmosphere of the Green Zone makes a mockery of the hardship endured by the average GIs, most of whom couldn't set foot in the "secure" facilities that were set up in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.

An end credit tells us the movie was "inspired" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and the movie does draw on some of Chandrasekaran's reporting, but Greengrass - who directed the brilliant United 93 and who directed Damon in the Bourne Ultimatum - chops up the action in ways that create at least as much chaos as comprehension. Obviously, war is a form of chaos, but on screen, a little chaos goes a long way, and by the time the final chase sequence arrives, you may already feel numbed to any potential excitement.

Damon, who's in almost every scene, does a convincing enough job as a no-nonsense soldier who's appalled by the idea that GIs may have been sold a bill of goods about why they're fighting in Iraq. A strong supporting cast includes Greg Kinnear as a duplicitous Bush administration representative, and Brendan Gleeson as a world-weary CIA agent who - unlike many others in Baghdad -- actually knows something about Iraq. Amy Ryan acquits herself well as a journalist who helped peddle the WMD story that whipped up false enthusiasm for the war.

Some of the interaction between the soldiers and ordinary Iraqis has the feel of authenticity, as well. The movie flirts with something truly interesting in the relationship that Damon's character develops with an Iraqi civilian (Khalid Abdalla) who hates Saddam's Baathist Party and wants to help the Americans, but who's never fully trusted by many of the soldiers he meets.

This time out, Greengrass's trademark approach - turning his images into pieces of cinematic shrapnel that are supposed to land with explosive force -- becomes (dare I say?) a trifle boring. And even some of the movie's smaller observations -- about bad U.S. decisions vis-a-vis the Iraqi Army and about the "real" reasons for the war - hardly seem shocking. As a result, Greengrass, working from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, is stuck with a movie in which war-crazed confusion tends to overpower a less-than-compelling tale.

All of which got me to thinking: Old-time advertisements for topical movies used to scream, "Ripped from today's headlines." I doubt whether anyone ever tried to market a movie by proclaiming that its story was "Ripped from yesterday's headlines," but that's pretty much what Green Zone does.

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