Give director Paul Greengrass a completely fictional scenario into which he can weave multiple levels of tension and anxiety—for example, Jason Bourne guiding a witness targeted for assassination through crowded Waterloo Station—and he delivers like few action directors in Hollywood nowadays. Unfortunately, Greengrass also has a penchant for torn-from-the-headlines political agitprop, which compels him to squander his talent on painstaking but pointless re-creations of real-life events. United 93 was half of an inspired movie—the half set on the ground among frantic air traffic controllers, not the half on the flight itself—but his latest effort, Green Zone, set in Iraq in 2003, does little more than wag its finger at the Bush administration for lying to us about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMD program. It’s an alleged action flick in which the tsk tsks register much louder than the boom booms.
Starring in his third picture for Greengrass after two Bourne adventures, Matt Damon plays Army chief warrant officer Roy Miller, whose job involves searching various sites suspected of harboring weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. (Amazingly, nobody in the film ever uses the redundant plural “WMDs,” whereas Kiefer Sutherland can’t make it through a single episode of 24 without saying “nucular.”) Every site turns up empty, however, and Miller’s suggestion that the intel must be bogus gets shot down by supercilious government flack Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear). Teaming up with a rogue CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson) and a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan), Miller valiantly struggles to uncover the truth, at risk to his own personal safety, completely unaware that seven years have passed and the rest of the world has long since moved on to more pressing matters, like passing the damn health-care bill.
Seriously, though: Who cares? Yes, the government lied to us in order to justify the invasion it wanted. Yes, that invasion quickly turned into an endless debacle. We know all that, and it’s neither edifying nor entertaining to watch Matt Damon laboriously catch up with the bad news, step by step. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (whose script was “inspired by” Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s nonfiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City) hasn’t invented a single compelling character, intriguing moral dilemma or suspenseful set piece, and Greengrass directs the occasional action bits on shaky-cam autopilot. There’s just nothing to Green Zone, apart from its sense of outrage—it’s a tract, not a movie. If you really still need to work up some righteous indignation on this ancient subject, the award-winning documentary No End in Sight covers most of the same material with far more perspicacity and many fewer tediously earnest monologues.
Speaking of which: While most critics (including this one) praised last year’s Oscar-winning Iraq drama The Hurt Locker, a few dissenters carped that it took its apolitical stance too far, reducing the Iraqis to faceless victims and villains. Green Zone suggests that, where American films set in Iraq are concerned, that might well be the lesser of two evils. Few moments in recent cinema have been more painful than the speeches written for Miller’s Shiite informant “Freddy” (Khalid Abdalla), who rambles on at numbing length about his love for his country and his concern for its future, and who sternly tells Miller at the film’s climax, “It is not for you to decide what happens here.” Okay, we’re all suitably chastened. Can we go home now?