When it comes to modern action directors uninterested in spatial lucidity, Paul Greengrass has gotten off pretty easy, despite the fact that his two Bourne films’ faux verité handheld cinematography turned every fight and chase centerpiece incoherent. It seems that if no one calls you on it, there’s no need to change, and thus it’s no shock to find the director’s Green Zone employing the same gritty-jitter aesthetic as his prior two collaborations with Matt Damon. In this laughably preposterous slam-bang military saga set in ’03 Iraq shortly after invasion, Damon is Chief Warrant Officer Miller, assigned to find WMDs by following classified, supposedly vetted intel that, as he goes from site to site, turns out to be dead wrong. First puzzled and then suspicious about the source of this info, Miller brazenly questions his higher-ups during a debriefing and, upon meeting resistance, goes rogue to discover the truth about Iraq’s weapons programs and our reasons for going to war. All the while, he flashes the cocksure bluster and invincibility of an ’80s action superstar tasked with the revisionist-history fantasy mission of righting real-world wrongs with nothing but his courage, know-how, and might. In essence, he’s Rambourne.
In imagining an alternate reality in which a lone hero uncovers—and exposes to the public back home—that no WMDs exist and that the U.S. military manufactured intel to invade Iraq, Green Zone recalls not only Stallone’s Vietnam-conquering army superhero, but also The Kingdom, which similarly treated the Middle East as a playground for ludicrous genre-movie crash and booms mixed with political “commentary.” In comparison to Greengrass’s latest, however, Berg’s glossy, ideologically silly work seems like The Battle of Algiers, despite the fact that it’s Greengrass who’s obsessed with co-opting nonfiction filmmaking styles. As is his penchant, the director never holds a shot for more than three seconds and cuts spastically at all times to generate a false, distracting sense of “energy.” In the process, he creates a permanent awareness of the camera that keeps one at arm’s length from the action. It’s as if Greengrass doesn’t trust his images, which is understandable considering the mundanity of his compositional sense. Yet framing issues are secondary to his maddening disregard for coherence in his frenetic skirmishes, shot in blurry handheld, often in darkness, and chopped to pieces in the editing room so that characters’ geographic relationship to one another, and the progression of incidents within a given scene, are wholly indiscernible.
Narratively speaking, Green Zone’s rage against the U.S. war machine is not only five years too late, but simplistic, its censure screamed with all the subtlety of Shock and Awe and its schematic layout of good and evil (with a miscast Greg Kinnear as the stand-in for the U.S.’s intel-fudging evil) so reductive as to be simultaneously risible and insulting. Based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Brian Helgeland’s script partakes only of kindergarten-grade analysis, replete with a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan) who learns the importance of fact-checking, dim third-act efforts to turn a mustached Saddam general (Yigal Naor) sympathetic—he may have murdered and tortured his countrymen, but he’s been victimized by Kinnear’s lies!—and countless other make-you-go-hmmmm moments. Everything’s black and white and cartoony all over in this Iraq adventure, from Kinnear’s villainy (one half-expects to see him eating an Iraqi baby for lunch) to Brendan Gleeson’s nobility as a gruff U.S. official, to Miller’s on-the-ground civilian assistant Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), whose primary purpose is to be laughed at when a soldier accidentally pulls off his prosthetic leg.
Nonetheless, the film’s crude regurgitation of common truths and opinions is ultimately less grating than its spurious attempt to legitimize itself via a docudrama style as inherently phony and unreal as Michael Bay’s polar-opposite car commercial sheen. Greengrass’s bump-and-jostle attention-deficit cinematography—chockablock with now-hackneyed sights of hooded detainees and suspects being tortured by bald meathead U.S. grunts, all of which are carelessly tossed off as shorthand supporting evidence for the story’s prime argument—appropriates elements from verité filmmaking and TV news reportage without successfully replicating those modes. Faithful mimicry, however, isn’t the pressing issue; it’s Greengrass’s use of his formally cruddy techniques for mere superhero fantasy, resulting in a disconnect that’s jarringly disingenuous. Haphazardly shaking and spinning his camera drums up just self-conscious, artificial liveliness (not to mention nausea), which comes to a head during a climactic nocturnal chase through Iraq streets that’s so visually muddled and hideous as to warrant a permanent, preeminent place in film school 101 classes. With unchecked fervor, Greengrass shows no respect for cause and effect, for how images and plot points cogently go together, thereby negating our own interest in how the pieces of his clichéd, scattershot film correspond.