Amy Ryan  and Matt Damon are shown in a scene from “Green Zone.” Universal Pictures (Universal Pictures)
Amy Ryan and Matt Damon are shown in a scene from “Green Zone.” Universal Pictures (Universal Pictures)

FRIDAY, MARCH 12, 2010

Action-packed ‘Green Zone’ comes up empty

With his urgent Jason Bourne movies and his documentary-style reconstruction of the 9/11 attack in “United 93,” Paul Greengrass has earned a reputation as one of our sturdiest action directors.

In the Iraq war thriller “Green Zone,” he’s hyperactive, pushing his guerrilla-style photography to a level of shock and awe that verges on the insufferable. Frenetic in execution and formulaic in substance, the film leaves one lathered into a frenzy but not moved, at once overwhelmed and undernourished.

The film is set in 2003, immediately following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when few people were inclined to ask pointed questions about the Bush administration’s rationale for the war. Weapons of mass destruction were in Saddam’s arsenal, we were assured; our troops would find them in good time.

Meanwhile, U.S. envoys kick back with pizza and beer by the pool inside the secure Green Zone sector while Iraqis outside beg – or riot – for water.

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) suspects something is rotten in Baghdad. After three dangerous raids turn up nothing more toxic than piles of pigeon droppings, he’s convinced there’s a serious intel problem.

When he says so at a mission briefing, Miller draws the wrath of his superior officers and the attention of CIA station chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson). The spy taps Miller to shed his uniform and go “off the reservation” to locate a fugitive Ba’athist general who can unravel the WMD mystery.

That’s right, the CIA man is a good guy. The press, represented by Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), is a gullible dupe.

The main villain is familiar, however. Greg Kinnear plays Clark Poundstone, a slithery neo-con bureaucrat determined to dismantle Iraqi society and airlift in his own choice as the new leader.

His henchman, Lt. Col. Briggs (Jason Isaacs), doesn’t hesitate to beat up Miller, snatch his informants and launch “kill, not catch” missions against Iraqi officials with embarrassing secrets.

When Miller protests, “Aren’t we all on the same side?” Brown counsels, “Don’t be naive.”

Dramatic license aside, the film does a fair job of summing up the cooked intelligence reports, credulous newsgathering and facts-be-damned official certitude that triggered our longest war.

But the story is less concerned with connecting the dots than with firefights and perplex-o-vision editing. The term run-and-gun camerawork never was so apt.

Watching the film is like being hit with a series of flash-bang distraction grenades – too much flash, not enough bang.

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