Bourne Goes to Iraq

03/09/2010 4:00 AM |

Green Zone
Directed by Paul Greengrass

An Oscar-winning bomb squad is a hard act to follow, but Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Brian “Which Brian Will You Get?” Helgeland do themselves no favors with their Iraq-recap thriller-a-clef. A cliché-soggy script and a ruinously pounding score mortally wound the original-sin news story: the WMD scam as unraveled by a tenacious officer (Matt Damon) on the ground in 2003, complete with Judith Miller and Paul Bremer figures. Despite the running action sequences and the dubious pleasures of hindsight heroism, Greengrass fails to galvanize the still-exhausting mess of recent travesty into a stand-alone gripping narrative.

The film’s sketch of a moment is plausible: Miller (Damon) contravenes a smoke-and-mirrors Bushie (Greg Kinnear, wearily fake), Baathist resistance and U.S. torture practices are brewing, an Iraqi informant (played by a United 93 hijacker) still wants to help, and so on. But the realism rhetoric of Greengrass’s filmmaking insists too much upon its urgency (clunkier than Kathryn Bigelow’s calculated mode of acknowledging and incorporating dicey kicks). Before Bourne, the British-born filmmaker had years of experience in you-are-there history back home, but the endeavor has always been a gamble. Bloody Sunday retold the 1972 massacre of Irish protesters with a canny use of blackouts instead of hard cuts, but praise for United 93 seemed inseparable from the film’s traumatized and traumatizing myth-making.

As Damon bulgily tools about Baghdad chasing clues, it’s less a kaleidoscopic felt experience like the Bourne amnesiascope, and more just plot-pointing, retro war-photographer autokinesis, and ravaged-landscape crane shots, not helped by villain face/off lines and uneven portrayal of military culture from Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Man on Fire, Mystic River). Greengrass gets the vital data on screen, but the story-telling flouts history-telling and thrill-seeking alike.

Opens March 12