Damon continues to thrill

Posted: Thursday, March 18, 2010

'Green Zone'

Universal Pictures

1 hour, 55 minutes

Matt Damon is either charmed, or very smart. Starting out as a bit player in films like "Mystic Pizza" and "School Ties," he went on to win an Academy Award -- for writing, no less, before he was 30. Then, after breaking free of the press' obsession with his BFF relationship with buddy Ben Affleck, he became a staple of smart dramas like "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "All The Pretty Horses," and "The Departed," as well as smart comedies like "Ocean's 11" and "The Informant!"

And, amidst all that, he somehow found the time to fashion a career as an action star in the ridiculously entertaining "Bourne" series. It's in this last category that his latest film, "Green Zone," falls into, though it's less actiony than a typical "Bourne" outing, with more elements of a political thriller. In other words, after having mastered just about every genre, Damon is now looking to meld a few.

Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller in this loosely based interpretation of the book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," about the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and it's immediate aftermath in the city of Baghdad. The emphasis here is on the word "loosely." Though many of the characters here are either based on real people or are composites, the actual historical events are really just a wider environment in which to play out this taut thriller.

Miller leads a group of soldiers whose job it is to find weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, as we all came to know them. Intelligence reports provided to his team lead them to one dry hole after another. Eventually, our hero gets fed up and decides to start asking questions. Where, exactly, are these reports coming from?

Turns out a super-secret source named Magellan has been behind them all, but when Miller starts probing into who or where this Magellan is, things start to unravel quickly. Suddenly he finds himself on the front lines of an interdepartmental war between the Pentagon and the CIA. With his loyalties tested, Miller discovers that the only way to serve both his country and the Iraqi people he was sent to liberate may be to go it on his own.

In addition to Damon, "Green Zone" has a very strong ensemble cast including Greg Kinnear as the weasly bureaucrat Clark Poundstone, Brendan Gleeson as CIA chief Martin Brown, and Amy Ryan as disillusioned reporter, Lawrie Dayne. The acting and writing are both good, but director Paul Greengrass' signature handheld camera style makes everything feel very spontaneous and "in the moment." I was particularly impressed with combat scenes that spoke to the highly chaotic atmosphere in Bagdad just after the occupation.

"Green Zone" is fast-paced, entertaining, and somewhat dated. The film was actually shot over two years ago, but due to an arduous editing process and complicated scheduling issues, it is just now hitting theaters. It may be for the best, however. With our country's focus now firmly on Afghanistan, films about the Iraq war now have a chance to show in a climate that isn't quite so emotionally and politically charged. Famously, films about that conflict have tanked at the box office, the reason given being that they hit too close to home. With the massive success of this year's Best Picture Oscar winner, "The Hurt Locker," a decidedly apolitical film, more and more smartly written Iraq movies are going to make their way into theaters.

One thing you can't accuse "Green Zone" of being, however, is apolitical. The book it's based on, as well as the film itself, are harshly critical of U.S. policy on Iraq in the days immediately following our supposed victory. This criticism is nothing new, and, considering we never found those WMDs and that, seven years later, the country is just now struggling out of an insurgency that basically amounted to a civil war, not entirely undeserved. The movie doesn't come off as anti-American but that won't keep many people from labeling it so.

For all the film's liberal sensibilities, however, the message that ultimately emerges is that Iraq is an incredibly complicated country with a highly diverse population, many of whom lived for years in desperation under the thumb of a tyrant. That our involvement didn't immediately fix the country is a testament to poor planning, perhaps, but also to the fact that someplace so fundamentally screwed up is naturally going to take a while to repair.

Grade: B+

"Green Zone" is rated R for language and violence.

Speaking of controversy, one of Alaska's homegrown battles will be joined this week with screenings of the film, "Red Gold," at the Kenai Visitors Center and at Soldotna's Triumvirate Theatre. The movie, beautifully shot and full of fascinating interviews, is ostensibly a non-partisan look at the proposed Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay, though one can't help but come away from it with a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach when you consider all we could lose if something went awry with that massive undertaking. If you miss the free showing Thursday night at Triumvirate Theatre, I'd recommend either searching for the film online or seeking it out elsewhere. No matter which side of the debate you fall on, "Red Gold" is well worth a look.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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