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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Matt Damon tries - and fails - to find WMDs in Green Zone, the new film from director Paul Greengrass.
In 2004, Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 took the position that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was predicated on a lie - that the country had weapons of mass destruction it planned to use on us. Furthermore, Moore (and, to be fair, several other prominent critics of the war) argued that the Bush administration intentionally used that lie as an excuse to take down Saddam Hussein. Green Zone states the same point six years later, making it a day late and a dollar short in the message department. This, however, is the only negative thing I'm going to say about the film because, while not exactly topical in the provocation department, it is nevertheless a smart, exciting, and relevant thriller.

Events begin on the night of America's first wave of the "Shock and Awe" campaign, with several of Hussein's top people sent scurrying by the aerial assault taking place. Matt Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who is assigned to lead his troops to search for WMDs stockpiled in the Iraqi desert. Each location he inspects has supposedly been confirmed by U.S. intelligence, yet Miller comes up empty at every single one. He begins asking questions, only to have his inquiries shot down by higher-ranking officials. One person who actually listens is a veteran CIA official named Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), who fears that an insurgency will take place if the government doesn't handle the invasion properly. Brown offers to help Miller, provided they can locate Al Rawi (Igal Naor), a Hussein cohort who might be willing to cut a deal that would prevent insurgence.

One person who does not want such a deal is Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a U.S. intelligence agent who cares only about creating the impression of complete victory. At one point, he even says he wants something that "looks good for CNN." He stands by the veracity of intelligence reports, having even sold that bill of goods to Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan). Miller crosses paths with Dayne, which eventually leads to the realization that Poundstone is sending another unit to hunt Al Rawi down.

Green Zone takes the position that "Shock and Awe" was better as a spectacle than as a strategy, and that the government was looking for something tangible to hold up for the American public to see. Consider the disbanding of the Iraqi army, which we now know was a fatal mistake. In the film, Brown and Miller clearly see that such a maneuver would only leave thousands of armed, unemployed, pissed off soldiers ready to carry out a grudge against the States. Poundstone, on the other hand, believes that smashing the Iraqi army delivers a clear message of victory - one that sends home the idea that America has "won." Director Paul Greengrass and writer Brian Helgeland (adapting Rajiv Chandrasekaran's non-fiction best-seller "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone") structure that idea well, showing how sometimes the best choice for creating stability in a war-torn land doesn't look as patriotic as the worst choice. It's a compelling idea, well explored by the film.

As he did in United 93 and his two installments of the Bourne franchise, Greengrass shoots Green Zone in pseudo-documentary style, with handheld cameras that add both urgency and authenticity. This is especially effective during the action sequences, most notably the climactic one. I think his talent as a director - evidenced in all his films - is in making you feel like you're right there in the situation, surrounded by the characters and part of the events.

Even amid the politics and the action, the performances never get lost. Matt Damon is terrific. He rarely chooses to play showy characters; most of them are average guys in extraordinary situations. Nevertheless, Damon makes each average guy seem different from all the others. He's completely credible as Roy Miller, a man stuck in a war zone trying to make sense of endless complexity. I also really liked Greg Kinnear, who pulls off shameless political manipulation without making Poundstone too stereotypically sleazy, and Brendan Gleeson, who brings his trademark sense of authority to his role. Amy Ryan (so wonderful on "The Wire" and "The Office") serves as more of a plot point than a fully fleshed-out character, but she still does a commendable job.

Movies about the Iraq War have been box office poison. Even Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker only made $14 million domestically. While none of them have made big money, many have been quite good, this one included. Green Zone looks at some of the root causes behind a defining event of our time. While it doesn't necessarily say anything new, it does bring a slightly different perspective to the futile search for WMDs. We see it here from ground level, from the viewpoint of a solider realizing that he's been sent on a wild goose chase. His attempts to figure out why constitute the bulk of the film's suspense. I found Green Zone to be a really gripping movie, primarily because it does examine a complicated scenario from a personal perspective. Greengrass and Damon have worked together successfully before, and once again they deliver first-rate entertainment for thinking adults.

( 1/2 out of four)

Green Zone is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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