Matt Damon, in 'Green Zone'

Dir. Paul Greengrass
(2010, R, 115 min)
★ ★ ½

Green Zone is a political thriller that works well as a thriller but not so well as politics. Set in 2003 during the early days of the Iraq War, it stages the search for WMDs as a network of cover-ups, lies, and abuses at high levels of power. That may sound very dramatic, but I’ve seen more disturbing revelations about our government in documentaries and nightly on The Daily Show.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t respond more strongly to its political themes. The screenplay by Brian Helgeland — inspired by the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran — shops at the used bookstore of liberal outrage. It doesn’t tell us anything we weren’t already told by No End in Sight, the great 2007 exposé that covers much of the same ground with greater clarity and potency. The Bush administration and its military leaders showed ignorance of conditions on the ground. The complacency about looting was foolish. The destruction of infrastructure was catastrophic. The disbanding of the Iraqi military was disastrously wrongheaded. The film hits these beats dutifully but they feel perfunctory, not inspired by genuine conviction.

Perhaps director Paul Greengrass isn’t really interested in those things. As a filmmaker, he is no stranger to the War on Terror era; his 2006 masterpiece United 93 evoked the stomach-churning anxiety of 9/11 as well as any dramatization could. But it notably avoided any hint of political allegiance. It was unconcerned with what happened before or after, instead zeroing in on the grueling tension of the moment. However, Greengrass, discussing his decision to adapt Chandrasekaran’s book, told Variety in 2007, “Film shouldn’t be disenfranchised from the national conversation … It is never too soon for cinema to engage with events that shape our lives.” So perhaps it is not a lack of interest on the part of Greengrass, but a lack of aptitude with such material, or a reflection of the shortcomings of Helgeland’s script.

Green Zone is at its best when it’s a straight-ahead thriller, following Matt Damon as Army warrant officer Roy Miller, who searches at first for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, then searches for answers as to why he can’t find any. There are good action set-pieces, which play to Greengrass’s strengths, and one uncharacteristically bad one: the protracted climax, a combination foot chase/fire fight/air strike, is shot at night with a shaky handheld camera and edited together without visual logic or continuity. Editor Christopher Rouse previously cut United 93 and The Bourne Ultimatum for Greengrass, so I’ll let this one slide.

My favorite scenes are one-on-ones between the actors — exchanging and challenging information, revealing details bit by bit. The film is bolstered by well cast actors like Brendan Gleeson as CIA Baghdad bureau chief Martin Brown, and Amy Ryan as manipulated journalist Lawrie Dayne. Greg Kinnear plays head of Pentagon Special Intelligence Clark Poundstone, but he’s too much a bureaucratic caricature to be a truly satisfying villain.

The most interesting character is Freddy, an Iraqi civilian played by Khalid Abdalla in an indignant performance that shakes the film awake. He’s interesting because he doesn’t seem to know he’s in a thriller about conspiracies and cover-ups. He doesn’t care about Americans lying to other Americans about his corrupt government. He wants to work. He wants not to be arrested by Americans or killed for cooperating with them. After giving a tip on a secret meeting, all he wants are his keys back because he needs his car to survive. His priorities are immediate and bring the film down to ground level. That is where Greengrass succeeds: not in the political maneuvers up top, but in the desperate urgency down below.