Paul Greengrass's Green Zone is a smart, tight political thriller, and there's so much in it that works, you're hard pressed to figure out why it doesn't quite land. It took me two viewings to understand why I found it slightly underwhelming--why I didn't like it as much as I wanted to. And make no mistake about it, you go in rooting for it; it marks the director's third collaboration with star Matt Damon (following the last two Bourne films), this time with a screenplay by Brian Helgeland (who adapted Mystic River and, um, Robin Hood). With the handheld, you-are-there cinematography and Damon in the stony man-of-action role, the picture is clearly aiming to recapture that Bourne magic, albeit at a slightly brainier level; yet somehow, in aiming higher, it accomplishes less.
It is 2003 in Iraq. Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is heading up a unit searching for WMD, seeking out sites provided by a source known only as "Magellan." But the locations keeping coming up empty, one after the other; Miller wants to know why the intelligence is so bad. He's told to follow his orders. About the only sympathetic ear he can find is that of Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a CIA officer locked in an ideological battle with neocon strategist Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) over where the country goes next. Miller's search for answers eventually takes him to journalist Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), whose articles helped push the "Magellan" meme, and tantalizingly close to General Mohammed Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor), a much-desired American target with secrets of his own.
Greengrass plunges us right in to the action, with a flurry of jargon-heavy dialogue and jittery cinematography, and not much in the way of exposition. This is normally an admirable choice, but it doesn't quite work here--there's a sense that we keep waiting for the movie to start, because it doesn't feel like anything has been prepared. But the dialogue crackles, and the action bets are well-executed while remaining organic, a continued benefit of Greengrass's off-the-cuff style. He gives the film a sparseness and intimacy that propels it from scene to scene with gritty, wily grace.
Damon gives an unaffected, crisply professional performance--the role doesn't require much in the way of personality, and he doesn't impose any (as a lesser, more insecure actor would). But he's not bland and square-jawed either; in a way, he's doing the same kind of understated action hero work he does in the Bourne movies, while not for a moment repeating himself. The supporting cast is equally capable, though the most interesting performance in the film may very well be that Naor, whose haunting, glowering intensity in his scene with Damon lingers long after the end credits.
Those who have closely followed the Iraq war, whether on the news or in documentaries like No End in Sight and Bush's War, should particularly appreciate how Helgeland's screenplay deftly mixes real names and events with fictional substitutions and composites--there is the A'yad Allawi-type character of Ahmed Zubadi, for example, or Poundstone, who appears heavily inspired by L. Paul Bremer (though Bremer himself is mentioned in passing near the film's end). And of course there are shades of Judith Miller in Dayne, though making her a writer for the Wall Street Journal rather than the New York Times creates an ideological shift that's not quite honest.
But its intertwining of fact and fiction may be what keeps Greengrass and his star from topping their previous pictures. Part of the genius of the Bourne movies is the skill with which they stack traditional action conventions atop rich political subtext; by moving the politics from the background to the foreground, the film is somehow less layered, more shallow. And the chases and shoot-outs of the third act feel comparatively frivolous. Green Zone becomes another Iraq-based thriller, on the order of Rendition or Body of Lies; it's better than those films, but slams up against some of the same limitations.
Let's make it plain: Green Zone is a good film, taut and fiercely intelligent, and were it not for its impressive pedigree, it might not feel like a disappointment. But, to some degree, its unconventional structure and naming-names storytelling works against its overall success; it can't decide if it's an of-the-moment political exposé or an old-fashioned thriller, and ends up lodged somewhere in between.
"Green Zone" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 22nd. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.