Bourne Beyond the Wire

You can’t just fictionalize actual events and ignore their real-life consequences. The makers of Green Zone did.

Spoiler alert! Jason Bourne does not find the WMDs in Iraq. Sorry to ruin Green Zone for you, but surely CNN already did that years ago.

It’s an odd duck, this not-Jason Bourne movie in which star Matt “Jason Bourne” Damon and director Paul “Bourne Ultimatum” Greengrass go to Iraq in order to pursue truth, justice and the American way. It’s 2003, a month after the U.S. invasion. Baghdad is a looter’s paradise, Saddam is on the run, and Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller is getting frustrated. He’s leading up a special army team tasked with swooping into WMD sites — we know they’re WMD sites because Our Secret Iraqi Source told us so — and bringing out the smoking guns so they can be paraded before the world press. Small problem: No WMDs. Not anywhere. Miller smells a rat.

“The intel’s no good,” he bites out angrily to anyone who will listen, which is just about no one at all. Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) is slightly interested... except she’s the one who’s been unquestioningly passing on these reports from Our Secret Iraqi Source, via her Deep Throat in Washington, to the American people. CIA operative Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson, with an American accent) is slightly more interested, because he’s in the middle of a pissing contest with professional poli-sci major Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear): they differ over whether Iraq can be fixed by sitting down traditional mortal ethnic enemies for a roundtable and manufacturing democracy.

Meanwhile, of course, there is lots of running around Baghdad in the dead of night for crazy-intense foot chases and gun battles and the like. There are a lot of bad guys left in that card deck of Iraqi bad guys to be hunted down, and one of them, General Al Rawi (Igal Naor), must know where the WMDs are, and Matt Damon’s gonna get him some answers, dammit!

Paul Greengrass is a master of documentary-style action filmmaking — it’s what made his Bourne movies so deliciously entertaining — but it’s an uncomfortable mix with the genuine criminal political skullduggery sitting next to it in Green Zone. Imagine All the President’s Men with some kickass military action thrown in, but with nary a mention of the names Woodward or Bernstein, never mind Richard Nixon. The invention from whole cloth of Saddam’s WMDs may be a mystery that has yet to be fully unraveled, but it’s a mystery that actually exists, and though Brian Helgeland’s script is based on the nonfiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the film plays like a wholly fictional thriller. (It’s set just far outside reality so as to lend it a gloss of authenticity.) But Green Zone, in fact, is a fictional thriller — a Hollywood-washed charade, a tale of actual perfidy that refuses to name any of the actual villains.

The most intriguing character here is Freddy, an angry, patriotic Iraqi played with aching soul by Khalid Abdalla. “Whatever you want here, I want more than you want,” he tells Miller at one point. It’s an ironic reminder of the peculiar disconnect Green Zone engages in, the one not between honest, ordinary Americans like Miller and honest, ordinary Iraqis like Freddy, but between the likes of Miller — who just wants to do his job and do it honorably — and the likes of those Americans not mentioned here, who lie to honest, ordinary Americans in order to gin up support for a war they want very much indeed. No amount of beautifully gritty urban military action excitement can quite overcome the sense that the real story is almost entirely missing here.