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NEW YORK (Reuters) - They conjured box office magic with their "Bourne" spy movies, but Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass risk their reputation as sure-fire hitmakers when the Iraq war thriller "Green Zone" debuts on Friday.
The action movie, which reunites A-list actor Damon and Greengrass, an accomplished director, aims to be the first big movie about the ongoing Iraq war to break through to mainstream U.S. audiences.
Buoyed by the success of "The Hurt Locker," a low-budget movie that won the Oscar for best film on Sunday, "Green Zone" is banking on audiences' hunger to watch an account of some of the U.S. intelligence failures tied to the 2003 Iraq invasion.
"We have made a genuine attempt to make a mainstream action thriller set in the real (Iraq) world. And that's what makes it really different ... it's a big movie," Damon told Reuters.
But how well can it do at box offices? "The truth is, I don't know, because it is the first one," he said.
Backed by a reported $100 million budget, Damon plays a character based on real-life Army officer, Richard Gonzales, whose Mobile Exploitation Team was charged with finding Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) during the invasion.
The film stems from reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's 2006 nonfiction book "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," a behind-the-scenes account of the Bush administration appointees who ran Iraq after the invasion.
Greengrass used the same crew as on the hit "Bourne" movies and the same shaky, hand-held camera style to follow Damon weaving and ducking through Baghdad's streets trying to learn why U.S. intelligence failed to find WMDs.
While independent filmmakers failed to post big box office returns with "In the Valley of Elah," "Stop-Loss," and "Brothers" -- "Hurt Locker" earned only $21 million -- former journalist Greengrass said he believes moviegoers are at a turning point, as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq.
He said U.S. attitudes toward the Iraq war were similar to those of the Vietnam War in 1978, some three years after the fall of Saigon, when movies such as "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter" were embraced by audiences.
"There comes a point where the experience starts to bleed through, into popular culture ... where people are ready to go and feel it, distilled and played back to them," Greengrass said.
He added that Americans were ready to watch "a blockbuster, action thriller" such as "Green Zone" that happens to be set in Iraq versus a film marketed as an Iraq war movie.
Greengrass and Damon noted it was hard to compare the Vietnam War-era and current Iraq war movies, given differences in public perceptions and styles of filmmaking.
The director added that the critical acclaim and attention devoted to "Hurt Locker" bodes well for "Green Zone" because the two are both thrillers.
"'Hurt Locker' showed, obviously, that people were prepared to admit the possibility that a film set in that part of the world can be good. And maybe the time has also come now when audiences will go and see one," he said.
Using industry standards, "Green Zone" likely needs $250 million to $300 million in ticket sales to turn a profit. "The Bourne Supremacy" took in $288 million worldwide and later "The Bourne Ultimatum" raked in $443 million.
Greengrass predicted "Green Zone" might even pave the way for more, action-packed Iraq films to come. "It is not so much that it will open the door," he said, "but I think will keep open a door that has to be kept open."
editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Paul Simao