Wednesday, March 17, 2010


“Bourne Ultimatum” director Paul Greengrass thrusts audiences into the thick of the gunfire in his action-packed Matt Damon thriller “Green Zone” (*** out of ****), co-starring Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson and Jason Isaacs, about the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003. Unfortunately, Greengrass’ high-octane, adrenaline-fueled combat actioneer clashes with Oscar-winning "L.A. Confidential" scenarist Brian Helgeland’s conspiracy theory narrative. This above-average, 115 minute, military melodrama about the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will grip you with its verisimilitude. Greengrass choreographs the violence with such nerve-wracking ferocity that you feel as if you are scrambling with American soldiers as they blast their way into and out of tight spots with enemy gunners literally springing up out of nowhere to rattle off small arms. Anybody who has seen not only “The Bourne Supremacy” but also “The Bourne Ultimatum” knows Greengrass is the latest accomplished master of an old filmmaking technique known as cinema vérité. Cinema vérité occurs when filmmakers rely on hand-held cameras to capture actors and action as if it were really happening. Today we classify this form of filmmaking as ‘shaky cam.’ Greengrass helmed both “Bourne” thrillers and used cinema vérité to supercharge them. Despite its vigorous action set-pieces, “Green Zone” suffers marginally because Helgeland tampers with history and cooks up an expose that implicates a Washington, D.C., orchestrated conspiracy to go war against Iraq without sufficient cause.

Our protagonist, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon of “The Informant”), has been dispatched to Iraq to ferret out weapons of mass destruction following the 2003 invasion. People without a clue about Miller’s military rank should know that while he outranks top-senior enlisted soldiers, he is lower than commissioned officers. No matter where Miller and his team go, they always come up empty-handed. They shoot their way into three life-and-death predicaments, and each time they discover nothing. Miller’s frustration mounts and his questions make his superiors feel uneasy. He quizzes them about the so-called ‘reliable’ source that furnished them with the information. Later, disheveled CIA Baghdad Bureau Chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") informs Miller that he will find no weapons of mass destruction at next scheduled WMD site on his list.

Meantime, a strictly peripheral character, Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), wants her confidential Washington, D.C., source to identify himself. As it turns out, Dayne’s source--code-named ‘Magellan--is none other than slippery Bush Administration official, Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear of “Stuck on You”), who knows far more than he is prepared to share. The villainous Poundstone keeps stringing along Dayne. Things change entirely for Miller when a friendly Iraqi (Khalid Abdalla of “The Kite Runner”), who Miller nicknames ‘Freddy,’ confronts him at a crowded intersection with a valuable tip. Freddy points them like a bird dog to a clandestine meeting of Saddam’s top lieutenants where he saw Iraqi General Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor of “Rendition”), who has been in hiding in Baghdad. Miller and his men storm the building, swap lead with the fleeing Iraqis, and our hero spots General Al-Rawi.

No sooner has Miller nabbed one of Al-Rawi’s subordinates, Seyyed Hamza (Said Faraj of “The Siege”), than Special Forces descends out of the blue in helicopters. Briggs (Jason Isaacs of “Daredevil” with a bandit mustache) takes Hamza into custody. He demands Miller cough up an address book that Miller confiscated with all the locations of Al-Rawi’s safe houses. Later, Miller slips the address book to Brown. Brown enlightens Miller about the amoral complications in the Iraq predicament. Stunned by these dire revelations, Miller tells Brown with a straight face, "I thought we were all on the same side." Brown straightens out Miller, "Don't be naive." In fact, while Miller concentrates on tracking down General Al-Rawi, Briggs and his men use all the resources at their disposal to shadow Miller without his knowledge. Basically, Americans are trying to outsmart other Americans in this melodrama of deceit. Indeed, Poundstone has important reasons for General Al-Rawi’s silence. Principally, Al-Rawi knows the truth about the WMDs. Poundstone wants Al-Rawi dead, and Briggs is committed to carrying out his boss’s orders.
The problem with “Green Zone” is British director Paul Greengrass and scenarist Brian Helgeland want the movie to double as a top-notch, white-knuckled, nail-biter but also as an indictment of the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq based on faulty information. In other words, the skillful filmmakers have intermingled truth with fiction or what is designated in intellectual circles as a roman à clef. Essentially, a roman à clef occurs when writers ridicule real people, such as either celebrities or political officials, without using their actual names. In this instance, New York Times reporter Judith Miller becomes Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne and Iraqi politician Achmed Chalabi have been given a fictional equivalent. Remember, Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction served as the key rationale for military intervention. Ostensibly, Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran's insightful 2006 non-fiction book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" inspired Greengrass and Helgeland. For example, in the middle of all this mayhem, Baghdad has a place, referred to as a “Green Zone,” for people to enjoy themselves as if war were not raging outside. Moreover, Chandrasekaran wrote that pork is commonly served in the Green Zone despite the fact that Muslims staff these areas. They used Chandrasekaran’s book to forge the appropriate background for their expose about the bureaucratic arrogance and stupidity that Americans exhibited in Iraq.

Production designer Dominic Watkins, art directors Mark Bartholomew, Mark Swain, and Frederic Evard, along visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang and special effects supervisor Chris Carreras should not be overlooked for their contribution to the film’s authenticity. These guys deserve recognition for recreating war-torn Baghdad with such meticulous detail. For the record, Universal Studios lensed “Green Zone” in Spain and Morocco, but you’d swear you were deep in the heart of hostile territory in this riveting, slam-bang shoot’em up.