| The trailers, clips and promotional advertising would make you believe this movie is a Jason Bourne-style action adventure set in post-9/11 Iraq. It stars Matt Damon (“Invictus” and “The Departed”) and is directed by Oscar-nominated director Paul Greengrass (“United 93” and the last two installments of the Jason Bourne series).
The script by Brian Helgeland (“Mystic River” and “L.A. Confidential”) used as inspiration the 2006 non-fiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a journalist on assignment in Baghdad for The Washington Post.
The movie is full of political rhetoric and has the advantage of crystal clear hindsight. It force-feeds mainstream audiences the lies about the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that triggered the war and the elaborate cover-up of the truth.
The title refers to a designated secure and safe area that includes the old Republican Palace where American decision-makers were isolated from Baghdad’s chaos and destruction.
The movie opens on March 19, 2003, with the “shock and awe” air strike of Baghdad under way. While the sirens are blaring and the bombs are exploding, Saddam Hussein’s top general, Al Rawi, flees from his residence with a notebook containing the locations of safe houses scattered throughout the capital.
The story progresses one month. We are introduced to Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) and his team of Army inspectors who come up empty for the third straight time in their mission to locate the elusive and nonexistent chemical WMDs. Miller starts questioning the reliability of the intelligence emanating from a confidential source named “Magellan.”
An internal power struggle exists between the Pentagon’s go-to guy, Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear from “Little Miss Sunshine”), and the grizzled, cynical CIA “dinosaur” Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson who plays Professor Moody in the Harry Potter series).
Poundstone has the press on his side and pitches exclusives to Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan from “Dan in Real Life” and “Gone Baby Gone”). He also controls a Special Forces goon squad led by Lt. Col. Briggs (Jason Isaacs who plays Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise).
Miller becomes frustrated after putting the lives of the soldiers under his command in harm’s way. He goes rogue and turns into a combination private detective and investigative journalist pursuing the truth. He aligns with Brown and gets into fistfights and gun battles with Briggs. Their target is Al Rawi and his coveted notebook.
Miller gets a sidekick in an English-speaking Iraqi named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla from “The Kite Runner”). Freddy has a prosthetic leg from a military wound in Iran and drives a battered old Toyota. He displays the most honest emotions about the future direction of his country and the intrusive American invasion.
Damon displays a virile physicality, turning into a one-man fighting machine. He operates like a magnet in the eye of the storm with all objects and characters orbiting around him. His acting consists of tough macho talk and a rigid posture.
The movie’s major strength is the uncanny ability of the production and set designers to turn the shooting locations in Morocco, Spain and the United Kingdom into a perfect replica of post-invasion Iraq. A shaky hand-held camera that gyrates wildly puts a damper on the viewing experience. Motion sickness bags should be distributed with each ticket. Another drawback is the grainy picture quality of the climactic night scenes.
This noisy and physically jarring movie proceeds at a fast pace and never gives you time to question the far-fetched plotlines and beyond-belief coincidences. Miller’s detour from duty and disclosure of classified information to civilians would surely land him in the brig and subject him to court martial procedures.
There were good reasons why this picture was moved out of a year-end release for possible Oscar consideration and dumped into the Ides of March weekend opposite nationwide basketball tourney mania.
The final slap in the face directed toward the Bush administration is the closing shot of a giant oil refinery.
There have been several, mostly ignored, documentaries extensively traversing the same ground as this feature film. Oscar nominee “No End in Sight” (2007) is the best in the bunch in laying bare the false representations, poor advance planning and faulty decision-making. The dialogue is partially in Arabic with English subtitles.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"