[Screen It]

(2010) (Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear) (R)

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Drama/Action: Frustrated by repeatedly incorrect intel regarding his search for Weapons of Mass Destruction right after the American invasion of Iraq, a U.S. soldier starts looking for answers and uncovers a far-reaching conspiracy.
It's 2003 and a month after the U.S. military invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (MATT DAMON) is in charge of a team assigned to find the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that reportedly necessitated the attack and current occupation. The only problem is that every site they're sent to turns up empty, and Miller wants to know why they're getting bad intel.

Compounding the issue is that few of his superiors want to hear about any of that, especially Pentagon official Clark Poundstone (GREG KINNEAR) who's in country to coordinate bringing democracy to Iraq. But CIA agent Martin Brown (BRENDAN GLEESON), who disagrees with Clark's game plan and thus clashes with him about the right way to proceed, confirms Miller's suspicions that something isn't right.

Things become more complicated when Miller and his team encounter "Freddy" (KHALID ABDALLA), a local Iraqi who claims he's seen the gathering of a clandestine meeting of Hussein's Baathist supporters, that turns out to include General Al Rawi (IGAL NAOR). Miller realizes if he can get his hands on the general, he can uncover the truth about the WMD program. Thus, with Freddy now in tow as his translator, Miller and his team raid the meeting.

Al Rawi escapes, but Miller thinks he's found something in the form of a highly coveted book one of the meeting attendees possesses. Just then, however, Special Forces Lt. Col. Briggs (JASON ISAACS) -- who's working directly for Poundstone -- swoops in and takes that man, but doesn't get the book. As Miller digs deeper into that and eventually meets Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (AMY RYAN) -- who's been writing extensively about WMD -- he soon realizes he's stumbled upon a cover-up of epic proportions.

Working under the guidance of Brown, Miller then races against time to find Al Rawi and discover what he knows, all as Poundstone sends Briggs to kill the General and his followers before any of their information can get out.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I know people, reviewers and non-critics alike, who don't mind being made aware of the endings of movies before they see them. For some, that's because they can still appreciate the construction and artistry (or at least attempt for that), while others prefer advance warning if the conclusion is going to be anything but happy and/or to eliminate some if not all suspense of how things will turn out.

Like most viewers, however, I appreciate the anticipation of how things will play out, especially if said plot has some sort of mystery elements to it. Granted, some films are too predictable and most critics have seen enough that it's usually fairly difficult to surprise us. Even so, we still want to see and experience the attempt and hopefully have our socks knocked off.

Sadly, any and all such foot coverings will remain in place during "Green Zone," a dramatic thriller about the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) immediately after the U.S. military invasion of Iraq back in 2003. In it, Matt Damon plays an Army chief warrant officer who's assigned to find them but is so frustrated by bad intelligence leads that he starts digging for answers. He then discovers a fairly significant cover-up and races against time and some efficient killers to find a key figure before he's silenced regarding what he knows.

It certainly sounds interesting, and the fact that Damon is teaming up once again with director Paul Greengrass (who directed him in two of the "Bourne Identity" films and helmed the terrific "United 93" and "Bloody Sunday") might lure in viewers otherwise reluctant to see yet another Iraq based film (all, including recent Oscar winner "The Hurt Locker" have underperformed at the box office).

The only problem -- at least for those who haven't had their heads buried in the sand over the years or simply don't pay attention to the news -- is that we know the outcome long before the protagonist. Granted, this particular tale isn't based on a specific real character and instead is "inspired by" Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran's novel "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." Nonetheless, the cat isn't just out of the bag from the get-go, it's delivered kittens that have gone on and had their own and so on.

That doesn't mean it's a bad film -- although there are some other problems that also bedevil it -- just one where the mystery of its mystery isn't, well, very mysterious. Simply put -- SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE HEAD IN SAND, NO NEWS WATCHING PEOPLE -- we know there are no weapons of mass destruction to be found and that the U.S. government lied about them as a means of invading Iraq. Had the film been released years ago before the truth came out, it might have been something to behold. As it stands, it's a decent action pic, but one that doesn't stand out or emotionally engage the viewer (a sharp contrast to Greengrass' previous post 9/11 film that was simply devastating).

The bigger issue is that the director and screenwriter Brian Helgeland increasingly push their luck with credibility straining plot moves. Damon's soldier character starts out in a realistic fashion, and understandably becomes increasingly frustrated and wants answers about why he's getting the runaround in terms of his team's fruitless missions. Considering the chain of command in the military and the absolute necessity of following orders, the protagonist would then seem to be stuck in an irritating quandary. He wants to do the right thing, but disobeying orders is a surefire way to end up on the wrong side of disciplinary repercussions.

Nevertheless, the character is pretty much then "Bourne again" (sorry, couldn't resist) as he becomes a determined, one-man truth finding machine that manages to buck and get around the system on his quest. While that might appease viewers who like the underdog David in Goliath's backyard sort of tale, it ends up turning the film into a two-headed beast: One that wants to be a smart, relevant and ultimately condemning drama and the other that strives to be an action thriller featuring a kick-butt action hero. The resilient hero approach also pretty much stymies any worries about his safety (which would have served the film well since at least his fate at the end could have been up in the air) as most such characters always survive running the gauntlet.

I'll readily admit that some of the action scenes are well done, even if Greengrass and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who also shot "The Hurt Locker") really need to spend a little of their budget on a Steadicam. Yes, I get the "you are there" quality they're going for (as they similarly used to better effect in "United 93"), but frenetically bouncing camera shots will make those prone to motion sickness to keep their eyes shut, while the frenzy of it all occasionally muddles the narrative throughout of said action moments. Related production design is top-notch, though, with some seemingly realistic (at least to this untrained set of eyes) recreations of bombed-out Bagdad right after the invasion.

The other big problem is that the filmmakers too readily wear their political leanings on their cinematic shirtsleeves, while the various related bits of dialogue -- particularly related to Greg Kinnear playing a determined Pentagon official in country to "do good" and Amy Ryan as a not-so-neutral Wall Street Journal reporter -- are too easy and on the nose.

A little subtlety would have gone a long way with them (and the entire film in general), particularly in terms of Kinnear's Dept. of Defense character clashing with the CIA veteran played by Brendan Gleeson. Obvious dialogue also stymies Khalid Abdalla as an Iraqi who only wants the best for his country, although the rest of his performance is quite good. Jason Isaacs is also decent as a Special Forces operative working against the hero, but he's far more of just a character type rather than an explored persona.

Had those various issues been addressed and if the film had been released in late 2003 or thereabouts, this might have been a terrific, eye-opening and timely thriller. As it stands -- and despite being an important story that certainly needed to be told -- it's nothing more than a decent action pic with an ending that's never in doubt. "Green Zone" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 9, 2010 / Posted March 12, 2010

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