Green Zone

"It is not for you to decide what happens here."

Though United 93 — Paul Greengrass’s stupefying account of 9/11 as seen from the point of view of the passengers of the hijacked flight that ended up crashing in rural Pennsylvania (and the air traffic controllers down below) — received almost universal praise upon its release, it rarely comes up in cinephile conversation. No one much likes to talk about it. I suspect that may be because its raw, unadorned depiction of a tragedy still fresh in people’s minds may have been too much even for the most battle-hardened moviegoers. The movie was staunchly apolitical, painfully direct — and utterly devastating.

Those wondering how United 93 would have played as a partisan screed may want to check out Greengrass’s Green Zone, but it won’t be pretty. Angry and monomaniacal about throwing as many gutshots as possible at the Bush administration, the movie ends up loudly and repeatedly telling us what we already know: Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, and our government orchestrated an elaborate deception to lead us into a quagmire in Iraq. Worse, Green Zone is determined to deliver this message to the masses via a breathless, thoroughly commercial, Bourne-like thriller. The result is borderline offensive: a particularly ludicrous episode of 24 contrived for maximum political point-scoring.

The movie opens spectacularly, with a scene of high-ranking Baathists fleeing a Baghdad palace as American bombs begin to drop in March 2003. With his typically restless camera supplemented by a screaming musical score, Greengrass conveys a remarkably convincing sense of desperation and panic. As the Saddam loyalists — including a high-ranking general who will later become central to the plot — drive out of Baghdad, the camera pans up and we see explosions light up the city. It’s beautiful and terrifying at once, giving concrete meaning to the cliche “shock and awe.” What have we done?

Then we meet Roy Miller (Matt Damon, stone-cold credible as always), the leader of an Army platoon searching for WMD’s in the early days of the war. Except, uh — there aren’t any. The information Miller receives is a bust, time and again. Supposed biological weapons cites turn out to be harmless warehouses or factories. Miller and his men are frustrated, but his superiors won’t listen. Finally, he runs into a high-ranking CIA man (Brendan Gleeson) who is a man after his own heart: he thinks there is something seriously fucked about the intelligence Miller and his fellow WMD hunters are following, and he’s determined to figure out what. But of course, he is stymied at every turn by an unctuous Bush administration apparatchnik (Greg Kinnear) who is fond of slogans like “Democracy is messy.”

Green Zone eventually turns into a slam-bang actioner as Miller, who has gone rogue at the behest of Gleeson’s CIA agent, chases down a Bush administration source who may have been full of shit when he informed the US that Saddam was cooking up WMD. But Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland — who were “inspired” by a fantastic non-fiction book called Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekharan — drain the film of any real excitement by turning it into a nonstop preachfest. There were no WMDs, we were lied to; we were lied to, there were no WMDs. The reasons why we go to war are important. In this case the reason was a lie — American arrogance, not any real threat. Etc. The message is artlessly shoehorned into a wildly implausible thriller plot (the notion of a rank-and-file officer suddenly ditching his men and going off on his own is ludicrous), which makes the thoughtless liberal sloganeering even more offensive. At least Lions for Lambs was unabashed about being a tract.

This is not to say that a movie about the Iraq War must be as apolitical as Greengrass’s United 93. But Green Zone would have done well to take a cue from David Simon and Eric ____’s spectacular 2008 miniseries Generation Kill. One baleful glare from Generation Kill‘s Lt. Nate Fick spoke volumes more than all of Roy Miller’s furious speechifying. The story of the Iraq War is fascinating, but the checklist of talking points is not.

-- Eugene Novikov

Green Zone
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