Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Antoni Corone, Nicoye Banks
Release date: March 12, 2010
“Someday this war’s gonna end…”
— Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now
“You know they’re all kids in Washington? It’s like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns.”
— Judy Molloy from In The Loop
“The reasons we go to war always matter. They always matter.”
— Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller from Green Zone
Green Zone: The Truth Ultimatum
The front between myth and reality evaporates as the search for the truth rages on in Paul Greengrass‘ Iraq War thriller, Green Zone.
In Green Zone, Greengrass has decided to merge his serious political films, such as Bloody Sunday and United 93, with the wildly entertaining Jason Bourne films he has directed: The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. At first, the result is one of supreme imperfection, but I have come to the conclusion that Greengrass has directed the first truly great thriller with the Iraq War as background. I have to remember that this is Greengrass’ version of the truth that he has taken from Brian Helgeland‘s screenplay. Helgeland’s screenplay is adapted from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life In The Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. Chandrasekaran is a reporter and editor for The Washington Post. The screenplay is more inspired from his wonderfully insightful book than a straight adaptation.
The disconnect between life inside and outside of the Green Zone is shown in the film; this is one of the major themes of Chandrasekaran’s book. With luck, more people will seek out the book after watching the film. Greengrass and Helgeland have decided that that too much preaching on their part is not going to win any points with audiences, but making an action packed thriller with insightful commentary and good performances might just be what the audience wants to see. What has come before has been so polemical that it alienates rather than engrosses. The Iraq War film has been a very mixed bag at the box office outside of the documentary category. The films that focused on the lives of United States soldiers have been the best films so far. Kimberley Peirce’s Stop-Loss, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Oren Moverman’s The Messenger centered their stories on the lives of the soldiers and did away with any kind of preaching. It made the films far superior to the remedial pretentiousness that came before. It has been the documentaries that have really shined a light on what is going on over there: No End In Sight, Occupation: Dreamland, The War Tapes, Iraq In Fragments, and Gunner Palace are examples. Also, HBO’s Generation Kill based on Evan Wright’s book of the same name was an excellent examination of the lives of soldiers before and during the 2003 invasion. In many ways, I prefer it above everything else mentioned. The book, like miniseries, made me feel like I was there.
American hubris in an age of hyper surrealism is at the core of Green Zone. The film takes place in the early days of the Iraq War. The hunt for Weapons Of Mass Destruction (WMD’s) was in full swing. The most important thing that Greengrass and Hegleland have created is a lead character, Chief Warrant Officer, Roy Miller, who the audience can get behind. As played by Matt Damon, Miller is idealism personified. He goes to Iraq to fight the good fight. He believed the newspaper stories in the run up to the Iraq Invasion that claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and intended to use them. Miller and his soldiers are supposed to secure locations that may contain these dangerous weapons, but they keep coming up empty-handed. Miller realizes that the intelligence is wrong — it may be nothing but lies. When Miller the soldier becomes Miller the amateur sleuth, things take a stunning turn. He is on a quest to find out what went wrong. In some ways, Miller is like Damon’s other popular character, Jason Bourne, but instead of figuring out his own identity, Miller needs to find out the truth of why the United States invaded Iraq. This search for the truth will lead Miller through a labyrinth of lies, corruption, hyper spin, and chicanery that should not surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the news, books, or documentaries since 2003. Make no mistake about it, Roy Miller is no Jason Bourne and while the film definitely engages in Bourne-like action sequences in the third act via Greengrass’ trademark hand-held camerawork and action packed sequences, Miller is not invincible. The trait he has in common with Bourne is that they are both wounded in some way.
Miller’s search for the truth is made the more difficult as he maneuvers his way inside and outside the Green Zone. There are several different battles going on throughout the film. There is the obvious United States military against the Iraqi Army, but there is also the power struggle between bureaucrats. The banal territorial pissings of Washington DC power players are transplanted to Baghdad. Cronyism run rampant takes on a greater meaning in Green Zone more than in any other narrative film made about this war. Miller’s idealism has been punctured severely in a variety of ways. In one sense, Miller is a wishful Monday morning quarterback. His search for the truth is the ultimate first casualty (as it is in any war), but here the search is a pointed critique of went wrong. How could it be that the intelligence could be so wrong? Not only were the American people sold on the war, but more importantly, the United States Military was sold on this war. At the end of the day, it is the soldiers and the families of these soldiers that are making the ultimate sacrifice. Miller’s character speaks for the grunts who put themselves in harm’s way every moment outside the surreal tranquility of the Green Zone. Miller is committing the act of subversive bravery because he is questioning the very mission he has been assigned to carry out. As it becomes clear that the search for WMD’s is an empty pursuit, Miller adapts an angry path toward disillusionment. I would not swallow it from another actor, but the fact that Matt Damon is in the role of dedicated soldier turned truth seeker makes it all the more appealing. It seems fitting that one of the earliest roles I remember him playing was as Specialist Ilario in Courage Under Fire about the First Persian Gulf War. Of course, he was also at the heart of the mission as Private James Francis Ryan in Saving Private Ryan. At first, Miller seems to be against type for Damon and that is what makes the role work so well. Miller is in many ways the antithesis of these characters. And while he seems not to have that much in common with Jason Bourne, it becomes all too clear by the film’s third act, that Miller, like Bourne, has been betrayed by his handlers. Here, Miller’s idealism has been sacrificed by a web of deception in order to invade another country under false pretenses. Roy Miller perfectly compliments his role of Bryan Woodman in Syriana. Matt Damon may very well be the perfect embodiment of the post-9/11 American protagonist. There is a deliberate thoughtfulness to the roles he chooses to play. The role itself has replaced the paycheck as the bottom line.
There are several vital relationships that Miller has that serve as metaphors for what went wrong in the early months of the Iraq War. Miller is essentially caught in a tug of war between Greg Kinnear‘s Clark Poundstone, a Pentagon intelligence officer who comes across as a thinly veiled Paul Bremer and Brendan Gleeson’s Martin Brown, a CIA agent who knows the region all too well. Brown knows that if things are not handled in the right way, sectarian bloodshed and political stagnation are only several blunders away. Miller cannot help but get sucked into the power struggle between these two men and the agencies they represent. When Poundstone’s men come in to take control from Brown’s team, it is one of those moments where we the audience know all too well that nothing good will come of this. Poundstone is an unholy mix of true believer and career bureaucrat. When the decision is made to disband the Iraqi Army, it is one of the moments that we remember as clear as day — the insurgency soon followed. Both actors play the roles very well. Poundstone seems to echo not only Bremer, but also Donald Rumsfeld in many ways.
The other relationship that is very important is Miller’s relationship to Amy Ryan’s Lawrie Dayne, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who has been publishing misinformation. Amy Ryan is an excellent actress, but I think this is one part of the film that I have a problem with. Dayne should remind viewers of Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter who was criticized after the Invasion for helping the Bush White House sell the War. Rod Lurie handled a Judith Miller-like character much better via Kate Beckinsale in the vastly underrated Nothing But The Truth, but here the filmmakers seem to let Dayne and the rest of the Fourth Estate off the hook. I feel it is the one thing the film gets wrong. I had the same problem with Meryl Streep’s Janine Roth in Robert Redford’s Lions For Lambs. Most, if not all of the mainstream media acted more like a cheerleading squad than actual journalists in the run up to the war. Journalism was abandoned in favor of cheap propaganda. Did no one have the courage to ask any questions or did everyone forget that to ask would be misconstrued as unpatriotic? It is the one thing that keeps Green Zone from being a truly great film. There is also the hotshot soldier played by Jason Isaacs, Lieutenant Briggs, that Miller crosses paths with throughout the film. He is a direct foil to Miller’s search for the truth and practically steals every scene he is in. And while Americans take center stage in this wartime drama, the Iraqi characters are important as well. There is the Baathist General, Yigal Naor’s Al Rawi, who may be the key to American Reconstruction in Iraq or a potential, deadly obstacle. There is also Khalid Abdalia’s Freddy who represents the heart and soul of Iraq in the film. He serves as a translator and informant for the Americans. He represents what life was like under Saddam Hussein — the ordinary Iraqis who suffered under his regime. And yet, he is not sure the American Liberators will be much better. Freddy gives some much needed meaning as to what it means to be an Iraqi civilian during these perilous times.
The second half of this film is sure to enrage the critics of Paul Greengrass’ shaky cam method of filmmaking, but I have never found it to be distracting. It works very well in the film’s climatic chase sequences. Not only that, but Barry Ackroyd’s wonderful cinematography compliments Mr. Greengrass’ furious vision just as it complimented Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. I am a huge admirer of The Hurt Locker, it a film more about the adrenaline rush of warfare and the lives of soldiers in combat. Paul Greengrass, Brian Hegleland, and Matt Damon are interested in the soldiers’ beliefs and ideals as well, but they have a much larger canvas they want to deal with. Some have complained that the mix of fact and fiction has undermined Green Zone’s poignancy and others feel it is too soon to make a film while the war is still going on. As I said earlier, we live in age of hyper-surrealism; we have soldiers fighting in two wars right now: Iraq and Afghanistan. The nightly news has all but forgotten about Iraq, but we still have military forces over there and will have a presence there for many years to come. I am glad that a film like Green Zone has been made and released. Political films as well as war films are a hard sell these days, especially during a time of war, but if a piece of popular entertainment can keep the topic in the Public’s mind, then more power to it. It does not matter that Green Zone plays to your beliefs or not, what matters is that it makes you think after you left the theater. If the film makes you angry, then it did its job. This really happened and it is never too soon to discuss. Maybe if we remember the lessons of this war, we might not be so eager to rush into another with such horrible misinformation and with such horrible consequences. The recent elections in Iraq are a step in the right direction. As our soldiers start to leave, the Iraqi people will finally be able to govern for themselves, maybe the real life Freddy’s will be able to live in a society free of the brutalities of Saddam Hussein and will never have to live under the rule of another strongman. Green Zone, like many of the documentaries made about the Iraq War reminds me of an interview I read with Noam Chomsky in Hobo magazine in 2003:
“I mean greatly to my surprise, I must say I’m shocked at this, they’re having trouble. I thought it would be a walkover. To fail to take control of Iraq and make it a viable society – that takes real talent.”
What he said in this interview has always stayed with me especially when reading or watching anything about the Iraq War. Watching Greg Kinnear’s Poundstone in action throughout the film, it is all I could think about. The truth got lost in remedial sea of bureaucracy, cronyism and downright incompetence. The American People deserved better; the Iraqi people deserved better, but more importantly the United States Military deserved better. Their lives should never be put in jeopardy for the bottom-line of Halliburton, Bechtel and the other companies that have profited from this misadventure. Their lives should never be put in jeopardy by the cowardly disciples of Neoconservatism. Even Francis Fukuyama came out against the war in his 2006 book, America At The Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. His criticism of the Iraq War put him at odds with his Neoconservative friends inside and outside of the Bush White House. The final shots of Green Zone are as cynical as they can be. If the film made you angry, I believe it achieved its goal.