Better late than never — a bang-bang pulse-pounder predicated on the Bush administration's deliberate fabrication of WMDs in Iraq, Paul Greengrass' expertly assembled Green Zone has evidently been parked for some time on Universal's shelf. Had the movie been released during the 2008 election season, it might have been something more than entertainment. Still, Green Zone, which could have more accurately been titled Told You So, Jerk-Off!, does gain some coincidental topicality for opening just days after the Iraqi elections and the release of Karl Rove's new book, Courage and Consequence, even if the zeitgeist has moved on, with the unwinnable war now in Afghanistan and the Bush disaster barely a memory.
Liberals, take such solace as you can. Green Zone is at least a credible piece of movie-making — easily grasped as an amalgam of Greengrass' artfully vérité docudramas, Bloody Sunday and United 93, and his Matt Damonized conspiratorial thrillers, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. A master of smash-mash montage and choreographed chaos, Greengrass is the best action director working today, adroit at producing the sense of everyone converging and everything happening simultaneously. From the opening frenzy of hopped-up shock-and-awe panic among the Iraqi leadership to the frantic final chopper chase through the back alleys of downtown Baghdad, the movie is nonstop havoc. You catch your breath only to have the wind knocked out by the mirage of the carefree scene around the Green Zone swimming pool.
Green Zone is set in the early months of the Iraq war and seen through the eyes of Matt Damon's chief warrant officer, parachuted in from a Universal story conference to find Saddam's hidden Weapons of Mass Destruction. After three successive sites yield nothing but mobs of looters and calcified pigeon shit, Damon is pissed; what's more, he has the guts to stand up at a mass briefing and complain. Boldly asking for the intel source, he's slapped down by the brass, brushed off by his CO and told by a Pentagon smoothie (Greg Kinnear) that "Democracy is messy." Then, following a tip by a friendly Iraqi (Khalid Abdalla), Damon begins to get the picture and sense the fix, even as the Defense Department operatives initiate what amounts to a cover-up coup against the (here good-guy) CIA.
Greengrass' pyrotechnics aside, Green Zone works mainly because of the hardworking, always-credible Damon. The ultimate good soldier in Saving Private Ryan, the cleverest of con men in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Damon is still a juvenile at 40. He has made a career of alternately projecting and parodying boyish idealism, sometimes in the same movie (e.g., The Informant!). For Green Zone, he's Bourne again with a difference, a gung-ho figure of incredulous righteous indignation. If there are no WMD in Iraq, then What's the Muthafuckin' Deal?
No characters have any more depth than that, but Greengrass has a knack for visual shorthand (a whiff of Abu Ghraib, a taste of "Mission Accomplished") and stereotypes in motion. He gets maximum mileage out of the twitch beneath Kinnear's Rum-dumb diffidence, the pained flicker of acknowledgement when smart-ass reporter Amy Ryan realizes she's been played for a chump and CIA man Brendan Gleeson's galumphing kick-away-the-barstool call to arms. And hats off to Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland for allowing Abdalla's everyman Iraqi patriot to intervene with the movie's big unanswerable line: "Eet eez not for you Amer-r-ricans to decide wot hoppenz heere!"
As black and white as Helgeland's script is, the movie may still be too nuanced for mass consumption. As Damon's idealism merges with realpolitik, the ultimate issue is whether to deal or not with a Ba'athist general. In the end, though, action trumps logic. Damon's two-fisted, patriotic mega-rogue Boy Scout cum investigative soldier is a far less likely figure than the thrill-crazy hero of The Hurt Locker — grabbing Kinnear by his collar and hissing, "Do you have any idea what you've done here!?" while Ryan stands by wincing in shame. That kiss-off is a bonanza of false consolation that transports the movie into the fantasy zone of Inglourious Basterds.