About the only criticism you could lob at Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker from last year was its lack of political context. The 2003 Iraq war is merely the setting for a series of set pieces involving US troops, with the local population merely stage-fillers. No such issue here – Paul Greengrass’ film tackles the issue of weapons of mass destruction head on, it’s an unapologetic attack on the US in the guise of a thriller. It couldn’t be more prescient with the inquiry going on, and something of a revelation.
Damon stars as Roy Miller, Greengrass’ soldier with a conscience who is on the hunt for WMDs. His intelligence leads him to a storehouse, but after a brilliantly filmed attack he finds nothing except some broken farm machinery. We then learn he has been on the search for WMDs for some time and found precisely zero, and, frustrated, challenges the intelligence. Keep your head down soldier he is told, screw that comes the answer, and we’re off into a murky world of double-crossing, complex politics and several more superb set pieces. Miller befriends local man Freddy (Abdalla), whose intelligence is worth more than the entire US military network, and they try and find the Colonel of the Iraq army, codename the Jack of Spades. Miller is convinced the only way to bring long-term peace to the region is to involve the Iraqi army, a view shared by the CIA officer Brown (Gleeson).
Ironically, Miller’s views put him face to face with a much bigger enemy – the US Government, in the form of Kinnear’s gloriously oily Poundstone, who sends out his own crack squad to get to the Jack of Spades before Miller. The squad, led by Jason Isaacs’ 2D marine Briggs, complete with comedy moustache, chase Miller through the dark streets in a tense, fierce battle which only one of them can win. Greengrass mixes his two great skills here to tremendous, thrilling effect. We all know he can do action sequences – he and Damon should copyright some of them – but he uses them to drive what is essentially a political thriller. He is about the only director who can make a soldier googling a journalist look exciting – memo to Jarhead director Sam Mendes, this is how you do it. Ironically in a film with plenty of fighting, a high body count and an eye-popping helicopter crash, the most violent confrontation is between Miller and Poundstone, which is mainly verbal – “Of course it matters why we’re here” blazes Damon’s soldier, eyes burning.
While the final shot of an oil field may seem simplistic it’s a powerful shorthand for Greengrass’ argument. It’s great to see popular cinema tackling such subjects, however flawed you believe the views to be, and I’ll bet it’s not in Tony Blair’s top 10 films of the year. Jason Bourne? Pah, that was just a warm-up.