When I saw that Paul Greengrass directed Matt Damon in this flick about the search for WMDs in the early days of the Iraq War, I feared that the film would devolve into another Jason Bourne movie. You know with all the pyrotechnic kung fu fighting, a rubber band symphony of intrigue, and the hand held ballet of neatly missed explosions. I suppose the film lived up to my fears, admirably, while mincing out the smallest possible squeak of protest. More like the angry gnarl of a dog with its vocal cords cut, for its pampered owner’s convenience.
The movie is silliest when it embraces the political myth that in times of war, a hero rises up to challenge the insanity and win the day with a clear-headed rationality that bucks orders and save everyone’s lives – military and civilian alike. It’s a familiar motif in the macho potboilers populated by the badgeless vigilante cop, the bullet dodging superspy, and the other cartoonishly invincible toughs.
Damon plays a Chief Warrant Officer whose team has been charged with investigating the intelligence reports detailing the location of the dreaded Weapons of Mass Destruction. When we first meet him, he is charging into a hot zone, where a sniper has stopped the progress of another, less determined, American unit. Damon arrives, shouting about how he and his team need to secure a warehouse where there are reported chemical weapons. A crowd of Iraqis stream past, carrying all sorts of blurry items, possibly looters, possibly refugees, possibly, as Damon fears, removing the evidence of those weapons. In the chaos, Damon organizes his team and makes a perfect assault on the sniper’s position. His determination and drive have been firmly established. He is a passionate warrior. Completing what he feels is the noblest of tasks, finding the proof to justify the war.
From this opening scene of single mindedness and determination, the sort that was so diligently lacking on the presses’ part leading up to the war (but more on that in a moment), Damon goes on to confront in, dangerously, insubordinate ways the command of his military controllers. First, expressing his disdain to his immediate commander; then a few minutes later, openly defying his commander by challenging the veracity of intel that has him chasing ghosts. From there the movie shifts from the purpose of locating WMDs, which everyone knows did not exist, to an odd mixture of the conspiracy theater and bug hunt subgenres. I suppose a movie could have been made where an American unit is sent digging up streets, while the Iraqi’s stand around jeering.
And there is a scene like that, except that unheroic tomfoolery is interrupted when an Iraqi man, Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), breaks through the crowd to alert the Americans of a gathering of very bad men – represented on the now infamous deck of playing cards. Damon splits off his unit, grabbing Freddy as a translator and heads off to chase the real meal of the movie.
From here on, Damon becomes embroiled in a power struggle between the administration’s main Suit (THE SOUP’s Greg Kinnear) versus the disheveled/slightly bloated CIA man (Brendan ‘Mad Eye Moody’ Gleeson). The single depth of this intrigue is the wading pool of same side political influence, each man trying to discredit the other.
The bug hunt comes in the thin plot line of tracking down a powerful Iraqi General (THE HOUSE OF SADDAM’s Yigal Naor). This General is the key to unraveling the source of the bad WMD intelligence and all sides want a piece of him – Kinnear wants him dead, Mad Eye wants him to discredit Kinnear, and Damon wants to get at the truth! This plot line serves up all the exploding brick doorways and the hand held camera chases through people’s living rooms. In the dishing this out, Damon gets captured, gets to fight the bad special forces, and general noble bad ass American soldier who kicks ass and blows the truth whistle to the end.
Amy Ryan plays an American journalist, based on the Bush Regime’s official NYTIMES mouthpiece Judith Miller. In reality, Miller was publishing articles cribbed directly from NeoCon’s press releases, taking at face value the intelligence and evidence that were being used to beat the drums of war. She has little do to in the movie other than follow Kinnear around beggingly demanding that she get that promised exclusive interview with the Iraqi source of all her stories. Of course, that source did not exist, since the evidence was fabricated. She is nothing more than a straw dog, in the movie to get kicked by all involved. The characters see her as a joke, the movie, itself, includes her only to ridicule the press’ monumental failure. In Damon, the movie condemns the press as cowardly and lazy, he models the investigative concern, diligence, and allegiance, once, reserved for the haggard, intrepid beat reporter. How conspiracy/political thriller’s have changed!
Lastly, the one legged Iraqi translator, Freddy. The uncomplicated character’s whole reason to exist is to give the colonized people of Iraqi a mouthpiece. Freddy spends the entire movie hovering in the background, ready to voice a sound bite designed to slice through the silly posturing of the Americans. He functions like a cute kid or handicapped character (he is missing a leg from his service defending his country in the Iran/Iraq War) on a sitcom – he adds the gravitas of a supposedly unexpected perspective. Even when that perspective is painfully obvious. I suppose, the movie should be granted some leeway for at least including Freddy, though, by the end, I wondered if his whole inclusion was just to prove the point that the Americans had no idea what or why they were in Iraq. And that is a pretty heavy message to convey in a gun shot one liner.