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.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Hey, kids, how do you feel about grain? Because Universal's VC-1 transfer has plenty of it. It certainly feels like an aesthetic choice within the source material, Greengrass doing his scenes-grabbed-on-the-fly thing, but that doesn't make it any prettier. Nighttime scenes fare the worst, coming off especially milky, though even some day exteriors are a bit of a mess. Do the uneven black levels and heavy grain add to the atmosphere? Sure, but high-def enthusiasts will probably still complain. On the other hand, daytime exteriors look pretty good, with details and textures shining bright in the desert sun, and while the color palate is understandably muted, the bright colors and bold reproduction in the pool scene make for a nice contrast.
However, no one can complain about the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which is sharp, robust, and excellent. From the pre-title sequence during the original invasion of Baghdad, the bombs, gunfire, and sirens surrounding the viewer are loud, aggressive, immersive. Street scenes are equally impressive, a cacophony of vehicles, choppers, construction noise, and chatter, adding environmental flavor to several scenes (such as the nearby jack-hammering during a sidewalk interrogation). Big action beats are well-modulated (that chopper chase near the end is forceful, aided greatly by John Powell's pounding score), but I particularly enjoyed the little touches, like the sounds of Snopp Dogg heard in the distance during the pool scene.
Spanish and French 5.1 DTS mixes are also offered, in addition to a DVS (descriptive video service) track. English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are also offered.
Director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon contribute a feature-length Audio Commentary track that is articulate, insightful, and entertaining; the two men are intelligent commentators with a nice rapport. Next up are five Deleted Scenes (12:27 total), available with or without video commentary by Greengrass and Damon--and Greengrass's son Kit. The scenes themselves are all valuable additions to the film (a rarity), clarifying the narrative and adding some sharp emotional beats for Damon and Kinnear's characters, while their explanations of why the scenes were excised provide a valuable insight into their process.
The featurette "Matt Damon: Ready for Action" (9:47) profiles not just the actor, but his interaction with the real Iraq War vets who played the members of his unit--and how their input contributed to the credibility and reality of the film. "Inside the Green Zone" (8:53) is a conventional promo piece, though spruced up with some good behind-the-scenes footage.
The disc is also D-Box and BD-Live enabled (though no BD-Live extras specific to this film were available at the time of this review), and comes with a Digital Copy disc for viewing on portable devices.
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.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.