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Director Paul Greengrass applies his consummate technical skill and capacity to crank tension to untold levels to a new story about the Iraq War in Green Zone. A competent thriller, the film moves quickly, never pausing for breath, but in the process it does some odd things with the film's nonfiction source material. "Inspired by" the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Green Zone jettisons the book's impressive research and engagingly sardonic tone, and adopts the narrative trappings of the three Bourne films. Indeed, the source material may as well have not even been mentioned - this is, through and through, a fictional story without any basis in real incidents whatsoever, and its supposed connection to a nonfiction book is just a sleazy misdirect that artificially inflates the film's relevance. In a way, this attempt to "legitimize" the film by tying it to the work of a reporter eerily echoes the prewar justification for the war itself.
This issue is obviously irritating to me, but when I set it aside, Green Zone is a competently-made thriller that is consistently entertaining and well-acted by a diverse and talented cast.
Matt Damon plays CWO Miller, the leader of a squad assigned to locate hidden caches of WMDs in post-invasion Baghdad. Stymied repeatedly by bad intelligence, Miller begins to question the military's source, a highly-placed Iraqi code-named Magellan. A CIA operative working in Baghdad (Brendan Gleeson) perks up at Miller's questions and begins working with him to covertly identify Magellan and, perhaps, learn the truth about whether or not WMDs exist in Iraq. Along the way, Miller runs up against an inquisitive reporter (Amy Ryan) who was the first to legitimize Magellan by printing his assertions in a major US paper - thereby giving credibility to the government's case for war. Meanwhile, Pentagon representative Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) is working furiously to locate Magellan for other, more sinister reasons.
Damon is earnest, direct, and serious as Miller; he lends real weight to the role. Miller came to Iraq with a straightforward mission: to locate WMDs. Unable to find them using the military's intel, he wants to know where they are and what the flaws are in the intel. So he sets out in an equally straightforward manner to find out.
The supporting cast is excellent. Although their roles are a bit under-written, Gleeson and Ryan are, as always, a lot of fun to watch, as is Kinnear. Jason Isaacs appears, briefly and effectively, as a thuggish Special Forces operative.
Greengrass channels his considerable skills and turns a solid procedural script by Brian Helgeland into a propulsive thriller. And yet Greengrass can't completely solve the major gaping story issue, which is the conspiratorial nature of the "secret" of the WMDs. As we all know, there were no WMDs. The lies that were told about them were always plain and obvious. Therefore, it seems strange that a film would opt to create a shadowy conspiracy story to explain something that was always right out in the open, in the light of day. There's a disconnect here between what we all know actually happened and the way the movie chooses to portray it. Why create a fictional explanation for something that has been so well documented?
To the credit of the filmmakers, this question was not obvious until after the film ended. It moves so quickly and is so effective in generating suspense that there was hardly time to register confusion or criticism.
Universal's enhanced 2.40:1 transfer is solid and impressive. It's a very dark film, with extended nighttime sequences, and the blacks hold up remarkably well. Detail is good, and contrast excellent. A very nice transfer of a dark, delicately-lit film.
The main Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track makes excellence use of ambience and very punchy surround effects. Firefights are appropriately explosive, with good bass. The movie is sonically active in general, with music by John Powell (though always present) taking a backseat to dialogue and sound effects. There are Spanish and French 5.1 tracks, as well as a stereo Descriptive Video Service track in English.
The bonus features begin with a Commentary from Greengrass and Damon. Recorded together, they share anecdotes and production details in a conversational, easy-going way. It's a decent track, if not exactly thrilling. Deleted Scenes (12:28) are available with or without Greengrass and Damon commentary; some of these are fairly interesting, although the director's justifications for excising them are understandable. Matt Damon: Ready for Action (9:48) doesn't go far beyond EPK fluff, and neither does Inside the Green Zone (8:53). Both are interesting, but don't offer a huge amount of insight.
An expertly-crafted thriller, Green Zone can't avoid a couple of important pitfalls, including flaws in the story's underlying logic and its assertion of a factual basis. But it certainly works as diverting entertainment, thanks to confident direction and an excellent cast. Recommended.