When Paul Greengrass made "United 93" in 2006, the chorus was heard throughout America: too soon, too soon. Once folks actually caught up with it, however, many realized it wasn't. By sticking, fastidiously, to the terrifying procedural at hand, the documentary-trained director fashioned one of the most urgent films of the new century.
Greengrass has made four of them, which is remarkable. In addition to the earlier docudrama "Bloody Sunday," his "Bourne" films ("Supremacy" and "Ultimatum") stripped the usual action tricks down to the bone, and the results were pure, kinetic exhilaration with a brain.
After sitting on a shelf for a bit, his latest, "Green Zone," opens this week, days after another fictionalized Iraq war film picked up the Oscar for best film of 2009. Good timing? Lousy? The marketplace will decide. But while Greengrass delivers a very skillfully made package, featuring Matt Damon (whose work becomes better and more direct with each assignment) in the leading role, "Green Zone" is the film, oddly, that feels like a too-soon proposition.
To me, it's too soon, or perhaps just too depressing, to turn recent, tragic and grimly well-documented geopolitical events (spoiler alert: I'm about to express a political opinion) that did not reflect well on America's place and purpose in the world into simplified, thriller-friendly material. "Green Zone" is partly real and partly, increasingly, fantastic and outlandish in its wishful thinking.
An Army warrant officer hunting for WMDs, the fictional Miller (Damon) begins his third straight zero-sum search for Saddam's chemical weapons at the picture's start. He is a frustrated good man in a frustrating bad place, in the year 2003. In screenwriter Brian Helgeland's story he is, apparently, the only member of the military who has any doubts about the weapons' existence.
He knocks heads with everyone in Baghdad, from the neocon Pentagon huckster ( Greg Kinnear) peddling bad intel to the scary Special Forces op ( Jason Isaacs) who, we're told by a sympathetic but overmatched CIA analyst ( Brendan Gleeson), is not on Miller's side. Everyone's after one of Saddam's top military figureheads, a Ba'athist leader who has gone underground and who knows what Miller wants to learn.
It's never dull and it's often truly exciting. Greengrass' technique is as spatially and rhythmically aggressive as ever, braking right at the brink of visual incoherence. Yet the style verges on nervous visual affectation. As Miller learns the truth and the folly of his mission, the film (shot mostly in Morocco and Spain) becomes movie-er and more polemical as it goes. Even if you agree with its polemics, that doesn't make them any more useful in the context of a "Bourne"-steeped genre thriller.
It's too soon to turn what happened into "one man's war."
R (for violence and language)
Matt Damon (Miller); Greg Kinnear (Clark Poundstone); Brendan Gleeson (Martin Brown); Amy Ryan (Lawrie Dayne); Khalid Abdalla (Freddy); Jason Isaacs (Briggs)
Directed by Paul Greengrass; written by Brian Helgeland, inspired by the book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin and Greengrass. A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 1:55.