Within seconds of the house lights going down, we’re in an Iraqi war zone. Bombs breaking overhead, rapid fire machine gun volleys, screams of frightened civilians. The hand held camera shakes with every sound affect, flying from scene to scene, character to character. The edits are short, choppy, blurring together a rushing cacophony of images and motion. In short, we are in a Paul Greengrass action scene.
The techniques he invariably uses have their strengths. In films like United 93 and the second two Bourne installments, Greengrass uses this visual confusion to good advantage, pumping up the drama while maintaining a kind of literal, quasi-documentary style. The advantage he has with those films, however, are superior, intelligent scripts, that add layers of complexity in harmony with Greengrass’ furtive visuals. Let us say this film does not enjoy that particular advantage.
As penned by Brian Hegeland (Man on Fire, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), the film takes the complexity of the U.S. military’s misguided search for WMD in the opening salvos of the Iraq War, and boils it down to a facile dichotomy: The good soldiers, as personified by Matt Damon’s character, who go to Iraq to “save lives;” and the evil bureaucrats, typified by Greg Kinnear’s government pinhead, who simply want to justify the war at any cost. Damon plays “Chief” Miller, in charge of an Army battalion searching for the aforementioned WMD. Growing increasingly frustrated by what he believes to be “bad intel,” as to the nature and location of the weapons, he takes matters into his own hands and very nearly captures a high-ranking Iraqi general (Yigal Naor), which draws the ire of Clark Poundstone (Kinnear), a high-ranking government official who seems to be the sole perpetrator of the WMD myth. Before too long, we’re in a race against time as Miller tries to locate the general and get him to testify to the U.S. Government’s malfeasance, while Poundstone tries to have him assassinated before he can spill the beans.
In addition to reducing the issue to a superficial, paint-by-numbers polemic, the film also makes the case for the U.S. distorted involvement in Iraq being the work of a single, relatively low-level bureaucrat. In order to avoid controversy, and, one supposes, to keep the film’s potential complications to a bare minimum, the filmmakers have declined to indict the acting U.S. president and vice president. The only time we see Bush, it’s as he’s giving his ridiculous “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard an aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, prisoners are tortured and beaten, SF troops break military laws left and right and one Army officer is very nearly able to track down one of the most wanted Iraqi military officials, very nearly single-handedly. “Democracy is messy!” intones Poundstone helplessly, as he’s being confronted with the ethical dilemmas facing the occupying U.S. military. Forget the “fog of war,” this film is a bloody blizzard of a sandstorm.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
Bypass theater ticket lines. Buy movie tickets in advance at Fandango.com.