It is 2003, and U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) and his team of inspectors have been dispatched by their commanders to find weapons believed to be stockpiled in the Iraqi desert. Rocketing from one booby-trapped and treacherous site to the next, the men search for deadly chemical agents but instead stumble upon an elaborate cover-up that subverts the purpose of their mission.
Spun by operatives with intersecting agendas, Miller must hunt through covert and faulty intelligence hidden on foreign soil for answers that will either clear a rogue regime or escalate a war in an unstable region. At this blistering time and in this combustible place, he will find the most elusive weapon of all is the truth.
A few weeks ago, I hosted a screening of a beautiful 35mm print of Carol Reed's immortal genre classic 'The Third Man' at the historic Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. During our lively post-film discussion, I bemoaned the fact that there hadn't been a 'Third Man'-type film (for those of you who don't know, it's a mystery that takes place in post-WWII Vienna) set in post-invasion Iraq. They're very similar places, both bombed out, with huge atmospheric piles of rubble and lots of shadowy places for nefarious types to hide out.
It was during this post-film discussion that I exclaimed, "Hey, wait a minute, they already did make an Iraq-set version of 'The Third Man!' It was Paul Greengrass' 'Green Zone!'" The audience looked on, puzzled, since nobody, and I mean nobody, saw 'Green Zone' in theaters. It was a bigger bomb than anything hidden beneath the dusty Iraqi soil.
But here's the thing: It's really, really great. Directed by Paul Greengrass, with the patented synthesis of real world politics and action movie theatrics he brought to the last two 'Bourne' films, as well as to 'United 93,' it's a tight little thriller that actually thrills. And what's more, it provides fascinating fodder for a discussion on the power of information and the singular determinism of one man lost in a vast and dangerous system.
Oh-so-loosely based on the nonfiction 2006 book 'Imperial Life in the Emerald City' by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, 'Green Zone' takes a look at the first batch of post-invasion soldiers. The peerless Matt Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who is in charge of ferreting out those elusive weapons of mass destruction. He soon realizes something is amiss; a factory that was supposed to be used for making bombs is empty and covered in dust.
He gets nowhere when he brings his fears and suspicions to Poundstone (Greg Kinnear, laying on the oily lugubriousness nicely), an administration wag, but is encouraged by a shadowy CIA figure (a game Brendan Gleeson) who serves as a crucial ally, as well as an Iraqi named Freddie (Khalid Abdalla), who offers key tips for uncovering the truth.
Miller also makes contact with Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), clearly based on New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who is fed tips by a mysterious figure known only as "Magellan" (via Kinnear's Poundstone). She is key in uncovering the mystery and in getting the word out.
Even though we know the outcome of the movie (it's not like Damon's going to walk into a building and be faced with row after row of nuclear missiles, quietly blinking away), it doesn't lessen the thrill at all. If this all sounds a bit too political, don't worry. On the Greengrass scale, things are definitely tipped towards "entertainment." This thing is a runaway rollercoaster ride of a thriller. Vividly realized with Greengrass' patented shaky cam and smash cut editorial style, it's emboldened with a superb level of you-are-there immediacy (the movie was grittily shot by 'The Hurt Locker's cinematographer Barry Ackroyd) and Damon, as the solider who is used to following orders but has to grow a conscience, he's like 'The Third Man's' Joseph Cotton: a genuinely good man lost in a crumbly, morally questionable netherworld. He'll get to the truth, but it might kill him first.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal, undoubtedly still licking its wounds from 'Green Zone's' disastrous box office take, has nevertheless issued a fairly lavish set here. The 50GB Blu-ray disc is BD-Live enabled. There's also a second disc with a Digital Copy (although if you were befuddled by its occasionally murky cinematography, watching it on an iPhone isn't going to do you or the film any favors). It is Region A locked.
The 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio: 2.39:1) faithfully represents 'Green Zone's' original theatrical exhibition, which is the highest compliment of all. If you're looking for a crystal clear image, then look elsewhere. That's not what Greengrass was going for.
The film opens with a nighttime shot (with a great corker of a reveal at the end) and immediately you get the impression of what most of the film, or at least the nighttime shots, will look like: grainy and alive with digital noise. The movie was shot on video, using the RED camera (which also captured 'District 9' and 'Che')and the inherent "graininess" of the video seems to have been upped, with Greengrass exaggerating it to look even more like fly-on-the-wall documentary footage.
When the movie takes place during daylight hours (or the camera stabilizes itself to some approximation of film-like smoothness), then the grain seems to get toned down. Sometimes the image is strikingly beautiful, sometimes it is uneasily muddy, but this is all part of Greengrass' M.O. You can say a lot of things about this presentation, but not being true to its source isn't one of them.
I found this transfer to be dynamite. In more quantifiable terms, it's still quite strong. Skin tones look good, there's a nice amount of detail (particularly on the various textures of the soldiers' uniforms and Jason Isaacs' amazing handlebar moustache looks even more amazing), and black levels are impressive, with the overall image looking three-dimensional.
With this presentation, vivid and true-to-form, you are there. It's just as good as the exemplary transfer on the 'Hurt Locker' Blu-ray, if somewhat more stylized and refined (again: the two films shared a cinematographer). I was dazzled by the presentation on this disc, but I can see some bemoaning the fact that it's not "perfect," to which I say: Some films are perfect based on their imperfections, and in terms of capturing those imperfections, this disc is second to none.
Even more impressive is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. This thing never stops working.
'Green Zone' is an active movie. The calmest moment is probably one shared at a poolside table in the titular zone, and that's over pretty quick. But even that scene is active, with people moving through the frame and sound field. Few films I have seen in high definition have a mix as great as this one.
Just as the video transfer does much to put you in the hyper-kinetic word of 'Green Zone,' the audio does the job, even more so. There is always something going on, with expert use of the surround sound channels. The best part of the mix is how perfectly calibrated everything is; even though there's tons of action, nothing ever becomes too overbearing or overwhelming. Nothing gets lost.
And if you're worried about dialogue (which, again, is mostly spoken while walking quickly or running), it's always crisp and clear and well prioritized. It doesn't get toned down or given less attention because of all the high-stakes thriller business going on.
This is just an exemplary audio track. One of the best I've heard on the format yet. This audio mix is the closest thing you'll get to re-capturing the theatrical presentation, and coupled with the wonderful video, will take any living room into war torn Iraq.
Also included on the disc are French DTS 5.1 and Spanish DTS 5.1 tracks and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Universal has afforded the 'Green Zone' Blu-ray with a fair amount of extras. Again, I find this kind of surprising given the poor box office performance, but it's a happy surprise for sure! Hopefully this movie will get its due at some point.
Paul Greengrass' 'Green Zone' is a breathless thriller in the tradition of Carol Reed's immortal 'The Third Man.' It's the story of one man, sent on a mission and uncovering a lie. The setting of post-invasion Iraq adds a lot of atmosphere and danger, and Greengrass' shooting and editorial style adds much to the story. With truly outstanding audio and video, and a hearty collection of special features, this disc is highly recommended.