Mar 22, 2010
From the opening moments of Baghdad under siege (which truly convey shock and awe in spectacular cinematic style) to the breathless final nighttime foot chase (also involving cars, Humvees and a helicopter) through the city's streets, Green Zone delivers nonstop thrills. I know that's a cliche, but in this case it's absolutely true. Like in The Bourne Ultimatum, the action almost never lets up. Every setpiece is astonishing, from a tense sniper standoff to a close-quarters firefight in an upscale home to a breakneck hunt for a Saddamist general lying low. The firefight leads to the discovery of a notebook that might be the clue to the whereabouts of one of the major players in that infamous deck of cards signifying Iraq's Most Wanted–and a lead on the intelligence Miller's after. But no sooner do Miller and his squad recover the notebook than a Special Forces team (led by an unrecognizable but excellent Jason Isaacs, looking a little like Bono) show up and attempt to wrest it away–along with their prisoners.
Miller is under siege on all sides, not only from the enemy, but apparently also caught up in the midst of a power struggle between different factions of his own forces as well. And for once in this kind of story, the CIA are the good guys, which is a refreshing change of pace, especially for Greengrass and Damon, since the same Agency pursued Jason Bourne through their last few film collaborations. The other side of the equation is personified by DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) man Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear at his smarmiest), the sort of high-level manipulator with no concern for his agents and soldiers in the field found in a dozen John Le Carré novels. Somewhere in the middle is the Judith Miller-ish Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), who wants to find the truth, but is a little too easily accepting of information she receives from government sources, which may not be it.
Let me address the political issue surrounding this movie right now: there is some sort of misguided, unfounded online backlash against the film, perhaps because of star Damon's own outspoken views. That is completely in error, and may be partially keeping audiences from seeing the finest action thriller in years. (Obviously the Iraq War content itself is also a huge factor there; the subject matter remains box office poison.) This is not a political film. It is an action movie with an intriguing political backdrop, but not by any measure a polemic. Granted, it is easy to take the high ground with the benefit of hindsight. We know now that there were no WMD in Iraq. But the movie doesn't beat a dead horse; it simply uses that particular moment in recent history as the ideal setting for an exciting spy story. Action and (truely harrowing) thrills are at the forefront in Green Zone; not politics.
Personally, I feel like excitement is something that's been missing from modern war films for quite a while. Yes, I am aware that combat is horrific and takes a terrible psychological and physical toll on those brave men and women who undertake it. But so is spying. In both cases, the grim reality doesn't mean that the fiction cannot be thrilling. I remember vividly the edge-of-my-seat excitement and utter dread that I felt watching The Longest Day as a child (and that was almost three decades after the film was made!); I remember feeling like I was actually there. I got that same visceral thrill from Green Zone. Paul Greengrass puts the audience right in the middle of the action, and we feel all the excitement and all of the terror. The aforementioned sniper scene is probably the most intense combat action seen on the big screen since the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan.
The moment-to-moment suspense is palpable, and Greengrass turns it up to the highest degrees that the audience can endure and still be entertained. (And boy is it entertaining!) The movie only fails to generate suspense when you stop and think about the big picture. Since we all know that no WMD were ever discovered, there is no suspense in that department. Luckily, Greengrass keeps things moving fast enough action-wise that we don't think about that too often, and the moment-to-moment suspense of the situations Miller is put in (greatly aided by the excellent, propulsive score by Bourne alum John Powell) are enough to keep us glued to our seats, absolutely breathless.
Green Zone is the best action movie since The Bourne Ultimatum and quite possibly the best spy movie since Casino Royale. I don't begrudge Universal marketing it as "Bourne in Iraq;" honestly, that's fair. There may not be a moment quite as jaw-dropping as the one in The Bourne Ultimatum where the camera follows Bourne's leap through an upper-story window in Tangier, but that's only because Green Zone exists in a slightly more grounded level of reality than Jason Bourne. Overall, though, it delivers the same level of thrills. If you enjoyed the Bourne movies, you'll enjoy this. (And you will probably be saddened anew that Greengrass has apparently sworn off directing another Bourne, as he makes his mastery of this style so clear once more.) I left the movie with the same feeling I have after I've just ridden a really great roller coaster: I wanna do it again!