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'Bourne' director brings Matt Damon back in war flick 'Green Zone'

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Posted: Saturday, March 20, 2010 12:00 am

"The Hurt Locker" has been enjoying the spotlight lately, and its success is thanks in large part to its status as a completely apolitical Iraq War film.

The war is still a touchy subject, it seems, and many viewers found the prospect of a non-divisive war picture too unique and refreshing to pass up.

Now comes Paul Greengrass' "Green Zone" (a loose adaptation of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," former Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's account of post-invasion Baghdad) to shake things back up with an absolutely incendiary look at the intelligence failures and lack of post-war planning that transformed the Iraq War from one of the most effective military campaigns in human history into arguably the most embarrassing curfuffle the U.S. has ever been involved in.

"Green Zone"

*** 1/2 (out of four)
2010, Paul Greengrass, U.S., R

It's political, alright, but if you're either sympathetic to its viewpoint or open-minded enough to put your own beliefs aside for two hours and be engaged by another point of view, then you'll also find that it's almost as enthralling, suspenseful and well-packaged as the Oscar-winning "The Hurt Locker." And anyway, come on — a little well-intentioned political bomb-throwing never hurt anybody.

Limited credits aside, Paul Greengrass must be considered one of the most capable film artists working today. More specifically, he's perhaps our greatest action filmmaker.

With 2002's "Bloody Sunday," an urgent docudrama about the ill-fated 1972 Irish civil rights protest, and 2006's "United 93," a bold recreation of the 9/11 hijackings, he has turned the action genre on its ear, recasting grim historical events as pulse-pounding suspense theater — not in any base or disrespectful way, but rather in a manner that pays proper tribute to their subjects while at the same time succeeding as thrilling exercises in sustained suspense.

With the second and third "Bourne" films ("The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum") Greengrass demonstrated his ability to work within the confines of a traditional action picture and still deliver an effective product, but the director is clearly at his best when dealing with real-world subjects.

His latest, "Green Zone," is a heavily fictionalized yet thinly veiled expose of the truth behind U.S. intelligence reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and Greengrass is obviously right at home.

His trademark handheld-camera technique (imitated yet never equaled by a litany of inferior filmmakers) perfectly captures the chaos of post-invasion Iraq, but Greengrass gives us a controlled chaos, and is careful to never let the on-screen kinetics careen out of control.

Even amidst the constant clanging and shaking around, the action is always focused and easy to follow, effectively placing the viewer inside the center of action without sacrificing coherence.

The subtleties of Greengrass' style will delight anyone with an eye for high-quality action, but viewers are likely to be more divided when it comes to the plot.

The story follows Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon, intense yet measured in his best action-flick performance), who as the film opens is becoming increasingly distressed that, a month after the initial "Shock and Awe" campaign, the U.S. military has still failed to locate WMDs in Iraq.

His concerns lead him to CIA operative Martin Brown (Brendan Gleason), a high-ranking official who suspects that figures in the U.S. government fabricated the WMD intelligence as a false pretext for invasion.

Miller's investigation takes him through a labyrinth of violence and deceit that all leads back to a fugitive Iraqi general who may have first-hand information about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs — or lack thereof.

Admittedly, I think you'd have to be pretty foolish to believe that the U.S. government orchestrated a mass conspiracy to invent the threat of WMDs in Iraq knowing that they'd come up empty-handed post-invasion.

Thankfully, though, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential" and "Mystic River" being among his more reputable film credits) don't allow things to get quite so reductive, instead relying on good old-fashioned incompetence and deference to explain the most striking aspects of U.S. intelligence failures.

In Greengrass' film, there is no mustache-twirling villain at the center of the conspiracy, but rather a line of broken institutions (namely, the federal government, the military and the news media) whose individual failures come together to create the kind of political climate that allows unthinkable screw-ups to occur on a global level.

That seems like a pretty reasonable perspective at this point, and if they'll just calm down for two seconds and think rationally, I think even the most bitter pro-war hawks will find that "Green Zone" is far from a trolling piece of liberal propaganda, and in fact has much to offer fans of action and suspense filmmaking — even if they're not usually given to films that dare question the tenets of neo-conservatism.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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