It's a film genre about as healthy as American auto-making -- the Middle East war movie. But if any director-actor pairing might be able to make an Iraq film a commercial film, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon may be it.
Loosely adapted by screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") from the nonfiction bestseller "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," Greengrass' "Green Zone" aspires to be less didactic discourse than duck-and-cover adventure. Given Damon's collaborations with Greengrass, imagine "Green Zone" as Jason Bourne in Baghdad.
"It is not a movie about Iraq," Greengrass said on the London set of his film last spring. "The hope is to make a strong, contemporary thriller that is set in Iraq. Thrillers thrive on extremity, and there is no more extreme environment than immediate post-invasion Baghdad," he said. (Indeed, the cinematographer's slate used during production titled the film not "Green Zone" but "Green Zone Thriller.")
The film follows Roy Miller (Damon), a warrant officer leading a team of 18 Army soldiers searching for weapons of mass destruction in late 2003, just after the American-led invasion. Instead of a cache of deadly chemicals, though, Miller's team finds disorganization and ineptitude, and Miller soon grows desperate.
"It's a race against time to find those weapons," the 53-year-old British filmmaker says. "It's a race against time to catch Saddam Hussein. It's a race against time to establish essential services. And it's a race against time to win the confidence of the Iraqi people."
Greengrass shot so much film that he has been editing footage for nearly a year, and Universal has yet to schedule "Green Zone's" release, although it is penciled in for late in the year.
But, while the flood of Iraq-themed movies over the past couple of years have almost all choked on public indifference, Green Zone has several factors working in its favour. It's a full-on, ramped-up thriller, for one thing. It has one of the biggest movie stars in the world, for another. But don't go expecting Bourne 4: Jason Takes Baghdad.
"Yeah, it's really different", says Damon, sitting down with Empire during a break from shooting a long and gruelling take (as a WMD-hunter chasing down a vital Iraqi witness, in 90-degree heat) on location in Rabat, Morocco. "It's unlike any movie I've ever done."
Going by what we saw during four days on the film's set - from a scintillating sequence in which Damon and his men storm a meeting of exiled Iraqi leaders, to a major scene involving Damon, Jason Isaacs's snippy Major Briggs, a dusty playing field and two helicopters - Greengrass needn't worry: Green Zone's pulse is threatening to shoot off the chart.