“Too soon?” we worried, when director Paul Greengrass brought out “United 93″ five years after the fact in 2006. Not so, it turned out, but there’s no getting around the less tactful too-lateness of Greengrass’ “Green Zone,” a juddering thriller with Army officer Matt Damon in 2003 Iraq trying to prevent bogus WMD intelligence from escalating a falsely predicated war.
Well, at least the movie preempts a charge of 20-20 hindsight with its own weird sort of willful myopia: the battle-zone tunnel vision compelled by a customary Greengrass rush of relentless adrenalization. After a prologue quite succinctly approximates the duress of shock and awe from Iraqi officials’ perspective, we whip right over to Damon’s chief warrant officer leading his inspection team into casualties and chaos and turning up nothing. He finds himself standing around stupidly in a dank and empty old building, like Geraldo Rivera in Al Capone’s vault. (Yeah, I’ll show you some ancient history.) A sense of futility has stirred in our good chief, and he is becoming annoyed. “This is the third straight time,” he barks. WMD? WTF?
At a briefing, Damon pipes up and inquires as to the source of this so-called intelligence, but gets rebuffed. Then a CIA man with weary eyes (Brendan Gleeson) finds him outside and tells him he’s right to worry. Meanwhile, Greg Kinnear’s Paul Bremer-esque Pentagon suit, quite clearly a weasel descended from a hawk, rushes to dismantle and alienate the otherwise potentially cooperative (if troublesomely Baathist) leadership of the Iraqi army, thereby precluding any hope for law and order. Amy Ryan also appears as an anguished journalist, prodding Kinnear for direct access to his mysterious intel source and starting to panic about getting a runaround. She’s basically Judith Miller of the New York Times, except less stubbornly credulous and (accordingly?) employed by the Wall Street Journal instead. “How does somebody like you write something that’s not true?” Damon eventually asks her, touching a nerve.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland has a knack for lines like that, which is too bad because it curdles his film into conventional thriller claptrap. So much for the so-called inspiration of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s nonfiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” which had a better, bleaker sense of humor about blowing the Green Zone’s poolside-bikinis-and-pizza-deliveries bubble up and away from the ravaged rest of Baghdad. Helgeland generally sticks to telling over showing. “Your government wanted to hear the lie,” says the menacing Baathist general (Igal Naor) who becomes a major plot point. “Whatever you want here, I want more than you want,” says Damon’s friendly Shiite informant (Khalid Abdalla). And so it goes.
That’s the other thing: These aren’t characters; they’re symbols. Damon’s, like Private Ryan all growed up and promoted for moral purity, is so very noble of purpose, so brave and authoritative and committed. We understand his indignation because it’s obvious, but what made him, in the first place, so righteous? Where did this guy come from? Does he have a family or any close friends? (Certainly he has an enemy, in Jason Isaacs as one conveniently villainous Special Forces opponent.) Obviously he never rests, or smiles, or allows himself to register an attractive woman, but does he even eat or go to the bathroom? Even Damon’s Jason Bourne, when pressed centrifugally against the wall of a Greengrass whirligig, made the effort to reflect once in a while. (Which of course, yes, was part of his problem.)
Here, excepting the occasional dignity of mute contrition (one of his specialties), Damon more or less forfeits any subtlety of characterization to the direct projection of star power. His hero is an immovable object, as set in stone as John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, or, hell, even that grunting Vietnam War revisionist Sylvester Stallone.
Ramboesque endorsements tend to tarnish even the leftiest of politics, and so there’s no way around “Green Zone”’s condescending subtext of “I want to make it absolutely clear to all the simpletons who voted against their own best interests just how wrong this war really was.” It’s supposed to be cathartic but just seems like too much when Damon actually shouts, “The reasons we go to war always matter!” Yeah, take that, former “Talk Soup” guy who was in “Little Miss Sunshine” and now stands for glib administrative obfuscation! The act of trumping up is what “Green Zone” claims to abhor, and also all it apparently knows how to do.