For the last half decade I’ve felt like I’ve been on the defensive end of a number of arguments when it comes to political movies which deal with the war in Iraq. The wide consensus is that these movies all too often sacrifice storytelling in favor of preachy messages and that the films suffer as a result. Then last year, in something of an ironic twist, the critics I’d been opposing all suddenly got behind an Iraq movie (The Hurt Locker) which I wasn’t necessarily as enthusiastic about. Make no mistake, I liked Kathryn Bieglow’s film a lot, but to me it wasn’t the transcendent war film that many held it up as. The praise for that movie was characterized by two claims: 1. that the movie was refreshingly apolitical (as if that’s an inherently good thing), and 2. that the movie avoided the peachiness by focusing on its role as an action movie. This second point was probably the most baffling part of the consensus that built around The Hurt Locker, because I frankly don’t think that movie is an action film, at least not any more of an action film than say, Platoon. Perhaps the most notable thing about Paul Greengrasses new film Green Zone is that it most definitely is an action film and a significantly more exciting one that The Hurt Locker ever claimed to be.
The film is set in the very immediate aftermath of the March 2003 Invasion of Iraq, when the war certainly felt like an injustice, but at least like an injustice that would be successful in its dubious goals. At the center of the movie is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), the Chief Warrant Officer in charge of a squad that’s looking for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. After many of the leads he was tracking down turned out not to have the weapons in question, Miller began to question the intelligence he’d been given. So, instead he begins tracking down a General Al-Raw (Yigal Naor), a former Ba’athist that Miller thinks is aware of the location of the WMDs. When a CIA agent named Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) learns about this, he encourages Miller, believing that Al-Raw may help him convince a stubborn Pentagon official named Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) that he should keep the Iraqi military intact. Unfortunately, Poundstone has other ideas and both Miller and Brown will need to increasingly bend the rule in order to find the truth.
The central goal of the film is to prevent the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. It has been argued by many (perhaps most accessibly in the documentary No End in Sight) that this disbanding, more than any post-invasion decision, was responsible for turning Iraq into the quagmire that it became. So, the stakes of the action on screen couldn’t be any higher. That’s not where the parallels to the real world end either. Many of the characters here are meant to be loosely fictionalized versions of real figures from the war. Kinnear’s Clark Poundstone character is pretty clearly based on Paul Bremer, the man who disbanded the Iraqi army (and was subsequently given a medal by President Bush), a journalist played by Amy Ryan in the film is clearly based on the NYT correspondent Judith Miller, and there’s also a dubious intelligence source in the film codenamed “Magellan” which is based on a real figure which was codenamed “Curveball.”
This insertion of figures from our recent history will be jarring to some audiences, but I disagree. I think what Greengrass has done is to use the cover of a fictional narrative in order to make a pretty interesting work of speculative non-fiction. This is not too far removed from what Oliver Stone did in a number of his movies about 60s politics and which I wish he had done more of in his film W. Much the way Stone would use his films to speculate about what people like Richard Nixon was saying behind closed doors, Greengrass is speculating about the machinations involved in a post-invasion Iraq. Of course, the speculative aspects of Green Zone don’t need to stray all that far from what is already known. The truth is, very few of the claims being made in the film are all that controversial. Are there really still Bush loyalists trying to pretend that there were WMDs in Iraq? Or that disbanding the Iraqi army was a good idea? I don’t think there are many, nor do I think there are very many people who will be overly shocked by the revelations here, but the way they are presented here make them far more accessible and exciting than they ever have been before.
Paul Greengrass made his name among critics with kinetic films about real world crises like Bloody Sunday and United 93, and he made his name as a commercial filmmaker by bringing a similarly immediacy to mainstream action films like The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Green Zone marks something of a combination of these two sides of Greengrass’ career, it has real world significance but it’s also unafraid to add visceral action to the proceedings, especially towards the end where we’re treated to an extended foot chase through Bagdad as witnessed both on the ground and above head by pursuing helicopters. This action does not delve into the realms of the ridiculous, there are no signature stunts ala Bourne and the hero is decidedly more mortal than the title character of that franchise. The action here is significantly more active than the suspenseful, but static, bomb defusing scenes from The Hurt Locker and to me, are much closer to the tradition of the action film.
I was also really impressed by the depiction of Iraq itself, which seemed really authentic, though admittedly I’ve never been to the place and obviously don’t have any real experience to base this judgment on. The titular Green Zone itself was particularly interesting; this was a secure area of Bagdad in which the majority of the high ranking officers, intelligence agents, and media figures were stationed. This area at times looks like a resort, complete with people sitting by a pool. The whole scene is reminiscent of the English base at Cairo depicted in Lawrence of Arabia and is meant to contrast the war zone that surrounds it. This oasis amidst chaos was the main setting of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone,” upon which Greengrass’ film is based, and it’s one of the film’s most interesting aspects.
I enjoyed Green Zone quite a bit both on as a fan of action films and as someone who’s interested in recent history. That said, there are a few sort of clunky lines in the film that fit into some of the complaints people have been having about “preachy Iraq movies,” there’s a line towards the end spoken by an Iraqi that is particularly egregious. I can’t say that this has the same resonance of something like United 93 (though very few movies do) and it isn’t quite the action onslaught that the Bourne films were, but this is still the work of an important filmmaker and not one to be taken for granted.
***1/2 out of Four