The ‘Green Zone’ referred to in the title of Paul Greengrass’ latest action thriller is an area of central Baghdad that at times during the recent occupation has been the focus of both democracy and warfare. Although the film has suffered delays in its production its eventual release has coincided rather presciently with the ongoing media coverage of the Chilcot Inquiry, a public investigation into the role played by the United Kingdom in the recent war in Iraq. But while the inquiry is attempting to search for facts, Green Zone is very much a work of fiction, albeit rooted in a conflict that is familiar to us all. Ultimately, however, this feeling of contemporary awareness – that the film is somehow contributing to an ongoing debate – is simultaneously an effective asset and ironically its greatest weakness.
Greengrass’ film stars Matt Damon as Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a soldier tasked with tracking down the now infamous ‘WMDs’ in Iraq. Needless to say, he doesn’t exactly find what he’s looking for. This is the first thirty minutes of the film and to all intents and purposes is based on fact, or at least an interpretation of such; from there, the film leans into the fiction of scriptwriter Brian Helgeland. Much has been made of the apparent similarities between this latest joint venture of Greengrass and Damon and the two films they made previously, but the ‘Bourne-in-Baghdad’ jibes are mostly undeserving. Green Zone does play out in a similar fashion, with Damon’s lead being combat capable and asking lots of questions, but ultimately the film feels familiar rather than derivative.
What remains in place is Greengrass’ almost documentary-like direction, his combination of stunning cinematography combined with grainy effects and handheld, fast-paced editing, and his adeptness at shooting fast-paced scenes. The film maintains a similar feeling of momentum to the Bourne films but, crucially, doesn’t quite grab the attention in the same way. For all the technical prowess on show here, and as convincing as Matt Damon is in the lead role, the film feels oddly short of the knockout punch, despite the tried and tested filmmaking techniques on show. It feels a little too easy for Greengrass, a little too by-the-numbers. Then again, perhaps that is simply the fallout from his success with the Bourne franchise.
The film establishes a good set of supporting actors in interesting roles but resolves to underuse them, in particular Amy Ryan’s journalist, who comes across as a story device rather than an actual person and in the end says very little about the effect of the media on international opinion. Jason Isaacs manages to be effective in a fun but one-dimensional role, whilst Greg Kinnear makes the most of his screen time as Pentagon Special Intelligence man Clark Poundstone.
In the end the choice to fictionalise the conflict and go down the conspiratorial route is one that has probably been made to sell the film. And fair enough, the studio wants an audience, but it does mean that the politicising on show ends up being diluted through a fictional filter. It’s all well and good to make assertions and implications directed at real life events, but when those assertions come in the context of an entirely made up story, they will inevitably lack a significant air of conviction. That isn’t to suggest that Green Zone has nothing to say – it’s certainly more intelligent than your average blockbuster – but it doesn’t carry the weight of its convictions. It might be easier to look past this fact if the story wasn’t so determined to reference real life events, but the terminology used and the setting in place is too big to be ignored. This is an Iraq film, and taking that context away from it in order to simply appreciate its technical adeptness would surely be missing the point.