Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone orders a problematic opening mission – remember a world convinced Bush Administration politics were transparent and tactile. It all seems horrifically absurd now, some seven years after WMD’s, Saddam, and a loaded little word called insurgency. But Greengrass’ disturbing and self-serious reminder of the corruption, manipulation, and treason perpetrated during those early moments in Operation Iraqi Freedom eludes inconsequence by staying brilliantly on task. Greengrass frames the great deception of our country around the convincing patriotism and singular desperation of Sgt. Roy Miller (Matt Damon), an old-school military believer pushed off reservation by his burning need to uncover not just the truth, but the reasons behind the lies. And for every step forward, Miller’s fragmented and bloody quest through the dark alleys and cramped interiors of a fiery Baghdad takes two steps back.
Setting and genre compete throughout Green Zone, as Greengrass recreates the kinetic war imagery of the American occupation, including bombed out palaces, dank detention rooms, frenzied intelligence offices, and priggish press conferences. But the film works best as an action film, slicing social and political commentary with the broad sword of Miller’s reactions. Damon plays Miller with fierce earnestness, transplanting the lethal movement and accuracy of his Jason Bourne incarnation into the body of a common soldier, working with complete freedom outside the realm of rank and file. Miller (and the rest of Iraq for that matter) hunts an Iraqi general holding the key to a peaceful transition and potential locations of the aforementioned WMD’s, circumventing the bureaucratic malfeasance of a high ranking Bush official (Greg Kinnear) and his band of special forces officers. This dichotomy parallels the fragmentation of the local Iraqi politicians pushing for power and the lucid influence of clueless D.C. politicians pulling the puppet strings from the peanut gallery.
While Miller battles ghostly foreign menaces and deliberate domestic evils, Greengrass paints with startling bursts of cinematic disarray, using his lengthy verite’ background to successfully transmit chaotic imagery and sound design. Like his Bourne films and United 93, Greengrass relies on this frenzied style to reveal a modern American history of isolation and doubt, specifically the damning details ultimately severing our classic Hollywood hero from nation, family, and ideological purpose. These are weighty ideas for an action filmmaker to digest, especially within poisonous box office subject such as the Iraq war.
But despite a willingness to occasionally go for the jugular, Green Zone descends into cliche during its finale, serving up some unforgivably indulgent moments. Instead of letting the imagery of divergent Iraqi ethnic groups rip apart the American puppet speak for itself, Greengrass paints Miller as a mobilized political message bringing closure and restitution to liberals everywhere (his one-note relationship with a duped reporter played by Amy Ryan represents this best). Miller’s workman professionalism and endless devotion stands above his symbolic reference, and when he takes a right turn toward representing a collective anger the film/character turn dubiously dated. Maybe this uncharacteristically simple denouement stems from Greengrass’ overt outrage at the injustices he’s representing. But it’s like hitting the broadside of barn with a shotgun.
Even though Greengrass’ political and social targets might be obvious (and certainly warranted), Green Zone manages to recollect an unforgettable traumatic energy through the eyes of a conflicted disciple, a warrior unsure of his allegiance to country or honor. In this sense, Damon’s restrained performance brilliantly subverts the film’s heavy handedness and simplicity, and during each firefight, hierarchical subversion, and ideological disappointment, Miller’s honesty and conviction become his greatest weapons. Ultimately, Green Zone fails to give Miller the support his many physical and mental sacrifices deserve.