Green Zone

You may have heard in history class that the United States led an invasion of Iraq in 2003, toppling Saddam Hussein’s government in order to stop him from using the weapons of mass destruction that he supposedly had access to. You may have also heard that no WMDs were ever found. But did you know that it was all a conspiracy?????

That is the premise of “Green Zone,” a fictionalized version of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone,” which evaluated America’s handling of Iraq after Saddam was kicked out. Since we already know that the search for WMDs came up empty, the source of suspense in the movie has shifted to why it came up empty — why the intelligence was faulty, and why we believed it. The real answers probably are not as scintillating as the ones given here — never ascribe to malevolence what could easily be explained by incompetence — but at least the real story, whatever it is, has the benefit of being real. A lot of what screenwriter Brian Helgeland (“A Knight’s Tale,” “L.A. Confidential”) comes up with is hooey. Mildly diverting hooey, perhaps, but still hooey.

Matt Damon stars as Roy Miller, a chief warrant officer in the Army who’s tasked with leading searches of facilities where WMDs are believed to be stored. When the film begins, a month after the invasion, Miller is already tired of coming up empty-handed, and doubts the credibility of the anonymous source who supposedly gave the U.S. all the intel. A C.I.A. official named Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) concurs: something fishy is going on here.

Meanwhile, Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a Pentagon bureaucrat, insists the informant, code-named Magellan, is reliable. Chief Miller’s job isn’t to determine whether the intel is solid; his job is to go where he’s told and see if there are any weapons there. A Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan), keenly interested in meeting this “Magellan” fellow, hits up Miller, Brown, and Poundstone for whatever information they can give her.

Though it may all sound like a political thriller or a war drama, “Green Zone” is closest in spirit to an espionage caper, with secret notebooks and dying confessions and hidden alliances and so forth. It takes a dim view of American leadership in post-Saddam Iraq, but that’s not exactly an unheard-of position. (For a more compelling analysis, see the documentary “No End in Sight.”) The political message of the film is that the WMDs were the major reason for going to war, and that it was troublesome when there turned out not to be any. Beyond that, it’s not interested in political statements. The weasels and turncoats involved could just as well have come from any other spy thriller.

The director is Paul Greengrass, who worked with Damon on the last two Jason Bourne films and has a vérité style that has usually served him well in his fact-based movies. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” benefited from Greengrass’ no-nonsense, documentary-like manner, but “Green Zone” comes across as too on-the-nose, too message-driven. Was the invasion of Iraq misguided and based on faulty intelligence? Sure, OK — but saying that over and over again is not the same thing as making a movie.

Miller, assisted by a well-meaning Iraqi named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), becomes interested in Mohammed Al Rawi (Igal Naor), a high-ranking official in Saddam’s government who might hold the key to what went wrong with the WMD intel. Finding Al Rawi and attempting to learn what was being covered up and by whom is good thriller material; once that’s settled, though, there’s nowhere else to go. “Green Zone” is too earnest and safe for its own good. It treads dangerous ground without really taking any risks.

C+ (1 hr., 55 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, moderate violence.)