No other studio picture released this year measures up to Green Zone, in which Matt Damon's soldier goes off the reservation to investigate the ginned-up WMD intel behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And it will probably be a while yet before any Hollywood suit decides to budget nine figures for a film as smart and as thrilling. General Bourne-again indifference and the much-discussed aversion of domestic audiences to Iraq-war movies combined to turn Green Zone into a strong cocktail of box-office poison back in March. The film arrived Tuesday on home video (though for the next month Netflix users can only save this Universal title to their queues). May it finally find the audience it deserves.
You can read Green Zone as director Paul Greengrass's retroactively angry riposte to the official-story vérité of United 93 (2006), for which the filmmaker earned an Oscar nomination. But the new movie might more usefully be described as an extension of the Bourne franchise, the last two films of which Greengrass helmed: Damon once again plays a no-nonsense truth crusader with a flair for lethal gymnastics. This time, though, he's Roy Miller, a chief warrant officer tasked with finding Saddam's chemical weapons. It turns out to be a frustrating assignment.
Miller eventually reaches out to a grizzled CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson), and they wind up working at cross-purposes with the Pentagon, here personified more or less by one official, Clark Poundstone, a ridiculous name to which Greg Kinnear does full justice. Gleeson's character, a Middle East expert, foresees Iraq descending into civil war if its military is disbanded entirely; Poundstone not-so-respectfully disagrees, and he's willing and able to steamroll everyone in his path with White House authorizations.
All this feels slightly dated (it is, after all, yesteryear's news), but no other Iraq-war-centric fiction film has had such a balanced view of those involved in the conflict—American grunts, Baathist higher-ups, Iraqi civilians, and poolside Western bureaucrats—and so Green Zone feels like something of a revelation. It's also anchored by an extraordinary lead performance. Probably nobody but Damon could've played this character convincingly. Just when you think Miller is dangerously close to being a bit of a hooah cipher, the actor manages a genuinely wrenching reaction to yet another shattered illusion.
While Greengrass's films since Bloody Sunday (2002) have received mostly respectful reviews, his adrenalized style—in which action is shot on chaotic handheld and cut rapidly—has long left many cinephiles grasping for the Dramamine, grumbling all the while about what ever happened to classical notions of continuity.
Some have also complained about the brand of realism this aesthetic serves, calling it outmoded and even pernicious in the case of United 93, its stunt casting of FAA manager Ben Sliney and other non-actors seen as an attempt to reclaim events rather than simply depict them.
But it seems to me that Greengrass's recent films—not excluding his Bourne entries, which on their face seem to be one-for-them projects between the based-on-actual-events one-for-me's—are more about the slippage between reality and increasingly omnipresent technological representations of it. In Green Zone, as in the director's other films, we see any number of state-of-the-art devices mapping out characters' movements. Here FBI agents in a makeshift control room instantaneously call up classified information from immense databases and night-vision surveillance displays in the cockpits of helicopters track targets in real time.
From afar, the trajectories are clear, the coordinates duly recorded, but none of these interfaces can quite keep up with the developing situation on the ground. In the last two Bourne films as well as in Green Zone, this is a chaos through which an individual whistleblower slips, using nothing higher-tech than his own fists, and perhaps a gun. Ultimately, the truth prevails, despite the efforts of well-equipped official channels—those agencies that use their vast technological reach to gather intelligence or fabricate it—to suppress it.
Greengrass's frequent cutting between visceral confusion and a radar's-eye view of it is not a lazy way of giving his topsy-turvy images a semblance of order, as some might argue. It constitutes, instead, a vital aspect of the director's work: the disconnect between the experiential, almost abstracted, action and the fluid, technologically mediated overview of it, foregrounding the difficulty of accessing What's Really Happening in this era of perpetual crisis. Greengrass is deeply ambivalent about this; depending on the film, or even the scene, it may be a good thing (Bourne is able to elude those tracking him) or a bad thing (the sheer confusion of United 93 comes to mind). Green Zone may not be the director's finest work, but it's exciting to see him bringing his distinctive aesthetic and set of themes to bear on another electrifying genre film.