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Look Back in Anger

Green Zone is a high-profile reckoning with the Iraq war.

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Can we still summon anger over the Iraq war? Green Zone is betting yes.

Hitting theaters just a couple of weeks after The Hurt Locker's Oscar-night triumph, Green Zone is a different kind of Iraq war film. Where The Hurt Locker has a tight focus on the day-to-day experiences of a small group of soldiers, with political and strategic context rarely explicit, Green Zone is rooted in that larger context, both the rationale for the war and its conduct in the immediate aftermath of invasion. And where The Hurt Locker is most notable for its episodic structure and unusually patient, painstaking technique, Green Zone is far more conventional: It is star- and plot-driven with a cinematic style — handheld camera, quick edits, lots of noise and motion — now standard for suggesting gritty verisimilitude and a wildly contrived action climax.

Fortunately, the star here is Matt Damon, and the filmmaker deploying the style is Paul Greengrass, who directed Damon in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum and also helmed the gripping 9/11 film United 93. In lesser hands, Green Zone might not work, but with Damon and Greengrass taking control, it is effective and satisfying.

Green Zone is a conscious, successful attempt at finding a cinematic midpoint between United 93 and the Bourne films. Set in Baghdad in the weeks just after the initial U.S.-led occupation, it stars Damon as Army chief warrant officer Roy Miller, who is charged with finding weapons of mass destruction amid the looters and post-invasion chaos but keeps finding that his Department of Defense-provided intel is wrong, something his Army superiors don't want to hear.

Miller finds an ally in CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a longtime Middle East expert imploring the Coalition Authority to not disband the Iraqi Army and railing against the attempt to install a U.S.-connected Iraqi exile as a new leader. With Miller and Brown both shut out of a process they sense is corrupted and increasingly doomed, they go off-reservation, working against military orders to track down an Iraqi general with true knowledge of the WMD program. The result is an exciting actioner with plenty on the brain.

More than The Hurt Locker, Green Zone evokes another key work of Iraq war cinema: political scientist Charles Ferguson's meticulous, sorrowful, calmly furious 2007 documentary No End in Sight, which recounts the errors of occupation with relentless detail and merciless precision. Green Zone is a simplified, fictionalized, ratcheted-up take on the No End in Sight premise but one that will be seen by millions more.

Both films are founded on a theory of the war that probably should be taken for pure fact at this late date: an overconfident, aggressive, duplicitous administration (here represented by Greg Kinnear's Coalition Authority official) pushing for war in concert with a pliable media (Amy Ryan's Judith Miller-esque reporter), experienced diplomats and spooks pushed aside, and uniformed military and the American public paying the price.

In this context, Green Zone's ending is implausible but necessary: Miller confronting his administration nemesis just as the whole occupation apparatus is beginning to fall apart, reminding him that it always matters why we go to war. "Do you have any idea what you've done here?" Miller asks. "What's going to happen the next time we ask people to trust us?"

Green Zone opens in relative innocence and hope, but as it follows one soldier's journey of awakening, it builds in anger and argues that we shouldn't let go of that anger.

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