Tentatively perpetuating his volatile relationship with Universal Pictures after disagreements over a possible fourth installment in the Matt Damon-as-super-spy “Bourne” franchise, director Paul Greengrass, with the studio’s blessing, has decided take his ball and go home — er, I mean to Iraq.
After scoring massive hits with the second and third “Bourne” installments, “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” which made a combined $730 million worldwide, Greengrass managed to lure Damon to over to his pet project, “Green Zone,” which (very) loosely adapts Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s 2006 book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” about life in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
The pitch sounds interesting enough. Take the international espionage, mystery, paranoia, intensity and frenetic energy of Jason Bourne’s fictional universe and insert it into one of the most disgraceful and costly scandals of the last hundred years — George W. Bush’s unscrupulous and illegal wars, both of which we’re still conspicuously mired in. Considering the enormous and devoted fanbase of the Jason Bourne character and the monumental unpopularity of the Iraq War the combo seemed a match made in wish-fulfillment heaven. Indeed, they might of just done away with the technicalities and called it “The Bourne Bewilderment: There Really Seriously Weren’t Any WMD and Only God Knows Why We’re Still Over There Wasting Lives, Bankrupting our Country and Breeding Anti-American Sentiment.” But apparently Greengrass and Damon didn’t get the memo; the one that states that any film about the Iraq War will fail at the box office. Even the winner of this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, Kathryn Bigelow’s universally beloved and admired “The Hurt Locker,” made a paltry $26.5 million worldwide.
Of course, a film’s financial returns are irrelevant in the context of artistic evaluation. It’s one of the luxuries afforded to film critics that makes it so easy to deconstruct monstrosities like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and extol the brilliance of Ramin Bahrani’s films. Movie studios, on the other hand, are businesses. Profits are the prime directive while things like originality, artistic integrity and ambition straggle behind often never making the cut. So given the perfect track record of Iraq War film failures, “Green Zone” must be one of the few instances of record wherein the creatively suffocating corporate studio culture is temporarily abated in favor of some enriching and meaningful contribution to the world of artistic cinema. Right? Not exactly.
Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a good soldier with a keen mind tasked with hitting each site believed to be housing weapons of mass destruction immediately following the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Iraqi military is overtaken quite handily but every site fingered as a hot-house by our intelligence is either full of pigeon droppings or outmoded mechanical equipment. No WMD. An understandably distraught Miller innocently raises concerns with his superiors about the trustworthiness of the intelligence but is immediately silenced, sparking his rogue mission to uncover a real-life conspiracy far beyond anything he imagined.
It should be noted that “Green Zone” is fiction. It is a shaky-cam thriller meant to be consumed as entertainment. There are ridiculous coincidences and invented scenarios, but it draws remarkably accurate real-life parallels and reconstructs the details of actual events with unrelenting attention to detail. It’s thesis that neocons in the Bush administration (represented by an insufferable Greg Kinnear) fabricated intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq is hardly disputed anymore, a fact the film uses to construct an exciting and enthralling narrative.
With Greengrass at the helm you can be sure that “Green Zone” is technically sound. It is a remarkably well crafted work of cinema shot beautifully by director of photography Barry Ackroyd. But a number of misgivings prevent it from achieving the larger portion of its goals. Brian Helgeland’s script oversimplifies a hyper-complex string of events to the point of absurdity. The nature of cinema often requires the distillation of ideas for the sake of pacing, character development or to serve the cohesiveness of the narrative, but Helgeland writes as if “Green Zone” is to be the latest installment in the “For Dummies” series of instructional books.
A poorly written script is occasionally buoyed when tackled by committed and gifted actors, but “Green Zone” enjoys no such benefit. Damon is serviceable as the determined skeptic but he’s given little to work with. His supporting cast is stiff, uninteresting and delivers the bland dialogue with the same energy with which is seems to have been written.