Though the last two entries in the Bourne franchise are as purely fictional as the first one, director Paul Greengrass brought an uncanny realism to the franchise, putting distance between Jason Bourne’s spy adventures and the more synthetic escapism of James Bond. With Green Zone, Greengrass’ latest collaboration with Bourne star Matt Damon, Greengrass makes a noble attempt to fuse the hard-hitting shaky-cam immediacy of his action movies with the scrupulous real-world politics of past docudramas like Bloody Sunday and United 93. As expected, Greengrass smoothly integrates the suspense and tension of a Hollywood thriller with a ground-level depiction of American chicanery in the chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad. Yet for the first time in Greengrass’ career, the politics too often get ahead of the action, so points that might have been subtly embedded in the story are instead laid out like a left-wing editorial.
To be fair, Green Zone saddles itself with the unenviable task of educating a mass audience on concepts like de-Baathification and the ethnic divisions that continue to make the dream of a unified, democratic Iraq maddeningly elusive. But it does establish a clear through-line in Damon, who stars as an Army warrant officer whose unit is tasked with finding the WMD that were ostensibly America’s reason for going to war. As mission after mission comes up empty, the increasingly disillusioned Damon starts questioning the identity and motives of “Magellan,” the highly protected source of this faulty information. In his quest for the truth, he aligns himself with a CIA operative (Brendan Gleeson) with similar goals, but comes into conflict with a Pentagon neo-con (Greg Kinnear) who treats the WMD problem like a PR kerfuffle.
Based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life In The Emerald City, Green Zone works brilliantly whenever it gets its hands dirty and follows Damon through the chaos of a city without electricity, water, or the most basic security and order. It also explicates, as well as it can, the post-war mistakes laid out by documentaries like No End In Sight, specifically the tragic arrogance and stupidity of officials who decided to dismantle the Iraqi military and its bureaucratic infrastructure. But whenever Greengrass and his screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, pull back and look at the bigger picture, Green Zone suddenly turns into something like Oliver Stone’s W., a clunky assortment of hindsight-aided quotes and talking points masquerading as recent history. It’s an important lesson, but Greengrass, against his nature, feels too inclined to spell it out for us.