I had high hopes for Green Zone. I really did. I'm a big fan of the Bourne movies and thought the sullen, slightly dazed but explosively violent character that Matt Damon played in the trilogy was perfect, a breakout role for him and a chance for us to see him as a cool - and different - sort of action hero.
Matt Damon stars as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller and with an occasional nudge by CIA chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) he gets increasingly frustrated by the dangerous missions his team's sent on, finding empty warehouses where intel has pinpointed WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). Leading the government conspiracy is Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear). The final ingredient in the stew is Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), who shows up at semi-random points mostly as a device to propel the storyline.
Unfortunately, while Green Zone was exciting and visually impressive, Damon was completely flat and unbelievable, one of the most actionless action roles we've seen on screen in a while. Worse, the sinister government plot to manufacture weapons of mass destruction as justification for the Iraqi invasion was daft and shallow, played out more like a comic book action story than a serious wartime thriller.
To be fair, though, the film did draw me in and it wasn't until the last thirty minutes or so that it became increasingly unbelievable, with twists and scenes that made me literally laugh out loud at their absurdity. I can't reveal the plot holes without spoiling the film for you, but suffice to say, by the end of the film, it's clear that Green Zone is more of a wish fulfillment story, a fantasy about how we presumably hope a lone agent of truth would ferret out what's really happening outside the green "safe" zone in Iraq.
The film is based on the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and it offers up many striking contrasts between the American stronghold and the rest of the city and, most importantly, the Iraqi civilians who are trapped in a dangerous chaos through the rest of the country.
The most striking contrast was early in the film, a water riot in the unsecured part of Baghdad where Miller and his team almost get trapped versus them driving past the tourist-like government employees in the green zone taking snapshots in front of Saddam's old palace as if they're on holiday, then Miller and his team walk into a poolside party where women are in bikinis and it's like spring break in Fort Lauderdale. They're amazed, and we are startled, as was intended with the scene.
Another memorable contrast occurs in another scene where a group of boys are playing soccer in an empty lot while a soldier is slowly sweeping a metal detector to identify any mines or improvised explosive devices left by the enemy. Life goes on, and it served as a poignant reminder that more about the Iraqi civilians who were friendly to the Americans would have really helped create a deeper, more thoughtful story.
The cinematography is terrific, and the exterior sets, particularly Saddam International Airport, are terrific, with great verisimilitude, but cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is a bit too zealous with his shaky camera shots during just about every single chase scene, and after a while it's almost impossible to figure out what's actually going on. Just like it did in Cloverfield, unsteady cam wears thin and devolves into an annoying gimmick way before Green Zone ends.
Matt Damon as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller
The battle scenes, and the scenes where Miller and his squad assault various locations, having been told that they are WMD storage facilities or where the WMDs are manufactured, are well done, and there is a sense of believability about fully armed soldiers stalking a public square while the locals are busy looting and ignoring any inherent threat to their lives. It's hard not to draw a comparison with the intense bomb diffusion scenes from the Academy Award winning The Hurt Locker, where careful framing and good acting trump the Green Zone's shaky cam.
There's another interesting aspect to Damon's Miller: throughout the film he has what looks almost exactly like a black-and-white keffiyeh, a scarf around his neck. We've seen this before: Denzel Washington has an almost identical scarf around his next during his wanderings in the Book of Eli too. What's the story? Some sort of subtle statement by the costume shop at the studio?
There are some powerful moments in the film, particularly early on. In one early scene, Brown swears at Poundstone, asking "do you have any idea what's happening outside the green zone?" to which Poundstone shrugs and responds blandly that "democracy is messy." In another scene Miller complains to Brown "I thought we were all on the same side?" and Brown just stares at him. "Don't be naive."
In the end, though, Damon can't make us believe in Miller and he comes across as a simpleton, a naive soldier who is fighting for a mythic goal of truth and justice, in Iraq to help the Iraqis, and when he goes increasingly rogue without consequences, the film just falls off a cliff, never to recover.
Green Zone tries hard and there's an engaging storyline that could have been the core of the film, but Damon's uninspired performance and a script that became increasingly unbelievable dooms the film to the cheap rental bin or a time waster on HBO, which is disappointing.