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Friday, May 7, 2010
'Green Zone' intrigue is a little late
Hey, here's some news for you: There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and elements of the administration of President George W. Bush deliberately deceived the public! If new Iraq war film "Green Zone" had come out with this plotline circa 2004, I would have cheered, but at this late stage in the game, it's stating the obvious. Maybe only Dick Cheney, his attack-dog daughter Liz and the Tea Party fringe who think they're currently living under "socialist tyranny" might take issue with this.
Still, cinema has a way of lingering in the public memory long after the news is forgotten and the history is obscured. Hollywood says it doesn't do history, and that entertainment shouldn't be held to the same rigorous standards; yet for all the flak they take for that position, they don't do a half-bad job. Our collective memory of Vietnam, for example, is largely shaped by movies, and the images we recall — helicopters blasting a small village, farmers and guerrillas alike; soldiers on acid firing at an unseen enemy; draftees who are far from enthusiastic about being there; wounded vets confronted with a country that doesn't support the war — are correct ones.
"Green Zone" certainly captures many important aspects of postinvasion Iraq — the unchecked looting and disorder, the root causes of the insurgency, brutal interrogation of detainees — but it's basically "Jason Bourne does Iraq," a pumped-up action movie where Matt Damon's straight-arrow soldier single-handedly exposes corruption and conspiracy at the highest levels.
This isn't surprising coming from "Bourne" series director Paul Greengrass (who also made "United 93"), yet however exciting the film may be, it's still a bit of a disappointment. "Green Zone" was "inspired" by the 2006 book "Imperial Life In the Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, which was simply the best piece of reporting on how the Iraq adventure went so terribly wrong. Chandrasekaran described, with unmistakable irony, the cocoonlike insularity of life in the Green Zone, a "little America" behind blast barriers, where political appointees in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) made decisions based more on ideology than reality, which affected an Iraq they barely even glimpsed. (No electricity or running water? No cops or traffic lights? Well, government's the problem; let's privatize health care and the oil industry first.)
Greengrass jettisons this tragicomic tale of imperial hubris and folly in favor of a conspiracy-thriller: the film's tale follows a frustrated U.S. special forces officer named Roy Miller (Damon) who leads a team tasked with securing and searching suspected WMD sites in postinvasion Iraq. Miller gets angry, and then suspicious, when he keeps raiding the sites and hitting air. Why is the intelligence all wrong, he wonders out loud; superiors tell him to not rock the boat, but CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Glesson) and journalist Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) share Miller's doubts.
Working with a local Iraqi informant named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), Miller goes after a Ba'athist general named Al-Rawi (Igal Naor) who may have some answers, but weasely Department of Defense official Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) does his best to shut Miller down, even sending in a Delta Force squad to intimidate him and snatch his leads. What is it they want to hide? Well, for all of us in 2010, it's (as Donald Rumsfeld would have said) a "known unknown," doctored intelligence.
Many of the characters in the film are loosely fictionalized versions of real people — Gen. Al-Rawi is based on the real-life informant "Curveball," while Damon's character is based on Richard "Monty" Gonzales, who also advised the film — and the tension depicted between people working for the CIA/Colin Powell-led State Department on the one hand, and the Cheney-Rumsfeld/ Pentagon on the other is real enough, though boiling it down to a chase and a shootout is a bit of a stretch.
Greengrass brings his flair for kinetic action sequences from the "Bourne" films — a raid on a Ba'athist safe house is particularly frantic — but the "shaky camera work equals realism" equation may be nearing the end of its shelf life. Beyond any message the film may have, its most telling aspect may lie in its choice of shooting locations: Morocco. Even after the surge and America's "victory" in Iraq — as the Republican pundits are now spinning it — the country remains far too dangerous to film in.
A better choice of director for a Green Zone movie might have been Judd Apatow: It's not hard to imagine Seth Rogen and Steve Carell as a couple of college frat-house buddies/Young Republicans who volunteer to serve in the CPA, just to get a leg up on some sweet Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign jobs, and wind up controlling Iraq's $13 billion national budget while trying to score beers and babes (both in short supply in the Green Zone). Somehow farce seems far more appropriate for the topic.