Top positive review
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a thriller that raises the right questions -- at least some of them
on 8 August 2014
Movie fans who like Paul Greengrass's handling of thrilling chase sequences in the Bourne movies that he directed won't be disappointed here. The last act of the movie follows the pursuit of an Iraqi general by two separate groups -- one that wants him dead and one that doesn't -- and it's quite marvelous how Greengrass keeps the pursuits clear enough in our minds, especially since we are talking about night-time military operations in an urban setting. There are lots of narrow passages, narrow streets, people dashing in and out of doors -- in fact, remarkably like the kind of thing that I saw in "The Adjustment Bureau," which also featured Matt Damon. But that movie was pure entertainment: here something is at stake, at least in the minds of the pursuers: nothing less than the future of Iraq, or rather, two competing versions of the future. Interestingly, the movie isn't simply favoring one of these over the other, as the end of the chase makes clear -- and in the interest of not spoiling that ending, I'll just leave it at that. But it is the characters' beliefs about what matters that does give weight to the chase, so that it's not an empty thrill. If it were, the movie could be legitimately be criticized as exploitation.
There's more to the movie than the chase, though. The first part is about Matt Damon's character, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, realizing that the intelligence his troop is working with to enable them to find and secure WMD sites is useless -- and he begins to suspect that he and possibly American policy makers have been deliberately misled. In the Green Zone, the American HQ in central Baghdad, he finds that a high-level official, Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear, smoothly togged out in civvies) won't listen when he tells him that there seem to be no WMDs. The official clearly has one eye on pleasing his superiors in Washington and one on keeping the news media believing the WMD story. He insists that the WMDs are there and that Miller just needs to look harder. Also in the Green Zone is a CIA officer -- a long time Middle East hand called Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson, all rumpled authenticity) -- who already deeply suspects that there are no WMDs and who is sympathetic to Miller's frustrations. The movie does a good job in suggesting the contrast between the comfort and seeming efficiency of bureaucracy in the Zone and the chaos in the Baghdad streets and the ugliness in the prisons. It's possible to see things getting a little schematic here -- the real conflict in the movie isn't between Americans and Iraqis but between bureaucratic American types whose main interest is PR and people whose ears are closer to the ground, like Miller and Brown, who can't see a stable Iraq being built if the reasons for going to war aren't good ones. As characters, then, the Americans tend to be simply morally categorized to an extent that they are pretty one-dimensional as characters. Interestingly, the more complicated characters are Iraqi -- Miller's translator Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) and the Iraqi general Al Rawi (Yigal Naor) -- and their parts are very convincingly taken. However, Damon, Kinnear, Gleeson and Amy Ryan (as a Wall Street Journal reporter who has pushed the suspect WMD story as fact) are all fine -- if their characters are flatter, that's how they're written, and the actors work hard to make them credible, and they succeed.
Is the movie just liberal propaganda, as some reviewers who rank it low believe? I don't think so -- the facts of the origins of the war were beyond partisan dispute by the time this movie was released in 2008. Obviously, the pushers of the WMD story don't look good, but you don't have to be a political partisan see the damage they did. The larger question that hangs over the movie is the one of who should be responsible for the reconstruction, supposing that that is achievable -- a question still very much in doubt as I write in 2014. So --yes, the movie does simplify and flatten some things, but it doesn't trivialize the conflict and the issues, and it is very well made and well acted.