So, you know the pitch: it’s “Bourne in Baghdad”. Set in the weeks and months following the initial invasion of Iraq, Matt Damon is leading a team who risk life and limb to drive out of the safe ‘Green Zone’ into enemy territory, hunting for the WMDs that were the pretext for the war. What we already know (and he’s slowly learning) is that there aren’t any.
Damon’s Chief Warrant Officer, Roy Miller, is becoming all-too aware of the disjoint between the war as it is being fought on the ground and how it is being planned and perceived by the civilians back in the Green Zone. This puts him in the difficult position of being smart enough to know that something is wrong, but he is still soldier enough to take and follow orders.
In-keeping with the way this war is always depicted; the dialogue between Americans and Iraqis is almost entirely made of yelled, hysterical mis-communication. Damon shouts so much that he sounds hoarse throughout. Sadly, the dialogue between the Americans is hardly more effective, meaning that Miller is at odds with most of his fellow troops, particularly Briggs, played by the ever-malevolent Jason Isaacs, who glides through the film like a shark (albeit a shark in a ridiculous ’tache).
This is your typical political thriller with all the underhanded double-dealing politicos, conniving CIA agents and scary special-forces operatives you’d expect but, instead of being set in the relative calm of decadent DC, its in the dust and heat of an actual war zone.
Everything is set to pounding music and the trademark Greengrass wobbly camerawork with staccato editing. Indeed, the camera never sits still; dialogue scenes are walking and talking, action scenes are shot hand-held and at the run, even a scene of Miller on the computer has the camera prowling restlessly around him. The action sequences follow the Bourne aesthetic well, cutting from satellite shots to computer screens to heroes on foot, with loads of radio cross-talk. The pace and sheer volume of this film doesn’t give you chance to think about what you are seeing, so the political message about WMDs is clearly not the point of the proceedings.
They obviously wanted to avoid the trap that many political thrillers fall into, of being too dry and confusing. This film is certainly neither of those things but, amid all the noise, chase-scenes and gun-fights, there isn’t really any news. We know our governments lied to us. We know that blood was spilled and continues to be spilled under false pretexts. But this film does nothing to address our confusion over politicians’ motivations or our quiet conviction that the war was capricious.
But, are all soldiers as idealistic as Miller and all politicians as corrupt as Poundstone (played with easy, greasy charm by Greg Kinnear)? Of course not. Are all Irish actors’ pretend American accents as dodgy as Brendan Gleeson’s? Thankfully not.
To its credit, the film is careful not to tar all American soldiers with the same brush, but it is also careful not to demonise the Iraqis. We see them planning to defend their country, but are made aware that many Iraqis feel that this rebellion is simply protracting the torture. In the character of Freddy, the taxi-driver and translator, we find someone who is desperately doing what little he can to bring around peace in his ruined country. He is, by pretty-much any measure, the bravest character in this film, being that he is the only one who has no Green Zone to which he can escape.
The final fire-lit chase / showdown through the burnt-out, Hellish streets of Baghdad is visually extraordinary and as tense as any chase scene shot in the last few years (certainly since the last Bourne movie) but, even during this master-class in how to make great action sequences, I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that an on-going war is not really an appropriate framework over which to stretch this action/adventure yarn. It neither adds to our understanding of the war nor offers any realistic closure to it. How could it?
So what does the film do? Sadly, it simply whets the appetite for another proper Bourne movie.
Dir: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Stars: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Khalid Abdalla, Jason Isaacs
Dur: 115 mins