When an Army warrant officer (Matt Damon) attempts to find Iraqi storehouses of chemical weapons in the early weeks of Gulf War II, we know his search will be a futile one. Yet screenwriter Brian Helgeland (MYSTIC RIVER) seems to think that this revelation is going to come as a real shock to the rest of us in this movie which appears oddly outdated from the get-go. Since we never learn anything personal about any of the American characters, it becomes obvious that they’re merely representations of ideas and political viewpoints which clashed over the issue of whether to use the Iraqi army and its generals to aid in the American incursion. This relevant plot gets lost in all the heavy-handed rhetoric that you’re pounded over the head with to the point of inducing a migraine. It doesn’t help either that Barry Ackroyd’s hand-held, unsteady camerawork contributes a liberal amount of confusion to most of the firefight scenes. It’s not often that such sequences in a war movie actually distract from the verbal dialogue, but that is the case with this flick. Some of the actors, like Brendan Gleeson’s (BRAVEHEART) American CIA operative, are miscast while Amy Ryan’s (GONE BABY GONE) WALL STREET JOURNAL reporter overlooks little things like confirming and verifying primary sources of information. Based on the non-fiction work of former WASHINGTON POST Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran, ZONE winds up looking like an elaborately produced film which may or may not be accurate, making it all the more frustrating to digest. I don’t mind films with a “message.” But it occurs to me that the most effective ones related to the Iraqi invasion are the ones that are apolitical (e.g. THE HURT LOCKER) and allow the circumstances and setting to do their persuading. CRITIC’S GRADE: C

CRITIC’S NOTE: If you want to see a powerful and truthful account of the pre-surge blunders during and after the 2003 Iraqi invasion, I strongly recommend NO END IN SIGHT (2007). Most compelling in this documentary, available on DVD, are interviews with people with hands-on involvement in the post-Saddam period who found their efforts hindered by disorganization, ideological agendas and the general incompetence within the Bush administration.