Nobody goes to Iraq-war movies. Four or five years ago, at the height of the insurgency, that was because there were no Iraq-war movies. (Vietnam, while it raged, suffered the same Hollywood blackout.) But even when some directors grew a spine and attempted to dramatize the effects of the American adventure on its soldiers (In the Valley of Elah) and civilians (Lions for Lambs) or on U.S. foreign policy (Rendition), the response was tepid. No Middle East war film has earned even $50 million at the domestic box office, and the one that came closest, The Kingdom, was a gung-ho action picture. Nor has the public's apathy abated. The Best Picture, Director and Screenplay awards that The Hurt Locker won on Oscar night served only as a gigantic promotion for the movie's DVD. In theaters it was the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner of all time.
Maybe Green Zone will be the breakthrough. Set in the first months of the U.S. occupation, the film has a churning urgency and a fierce verisimilitude, courtesy of director Paul Greengrass (United 93) and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker). Shot in Spain, Morocco and the U.K., the film straps you into a Baghdad state of mind. It's hell at 130°, with dust and dread tarping the streets as if to smother anyone who'd attempt to escape. Murderous intent abounds on both the U.S. and Saddam-loyalist sides; life is cheap, and the stakes are high. If you're not gripped and terrified by the movie, you haven't been paying attention.
Green Zone also has Matt Damon, a real movie star, reteaming with Greengrass to essentially parachute their franchise's hero, Jason Bourne, into the toxic reality of Iraq. Like The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, this new collaboration rubs the nose of a fantasy plot into the gritty soil of political intrigue. Roy Miller, the Army chief warrant officer played by Damon, is a good soldier who realizes that his mission to unearth the weapons of mass destruction the Bush Administration used as a rationale for invading Iraq is bogus. Now, dammit, he'll find what's behind that ruse, even if his life is threatened by renegade Baathists and the American high command. Soon he's a one-man army, going rogue or Rambo, dodging not-so-friendly fire and outwrestling an Iraqi thug. He's Bourne again, in Baghdad.
Miller tangles with Washington's man in charge, Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear); gets mixed signals from Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a journalist who fed her readers government misinformation about WMD; and finds an ally in Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a grizzled old CIA hand. He also gets help from a reluctant Iraqi informant named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla, playing the film's richest character) in pursuing an elusive Saddamist general, al-Rawi (Igal Naor), who may hold the secret to the mystery. The viewer is free to infer that Poundstone is L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and Dayne is the New York Times' Judith Miller. (Brown, the repository of weary espionage wisdom, is every CIA or MI5 spy out of a Graham Greene novel.) To complete the skein of conspiracy, the movie also has a stand-in for Washington's Iraq front man, Ahmad Chalabi.
Heart of Obfuscation
Brian Helgeland's script is "inspired" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's 2006 book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. In it, the Washington Post reporter detailed the arrogance and naiveté of the young zealots the Bush Administration sent to pacify Iraq: how they frolicked beside Green Zone swimming pools as if Baghdad were spring-break Fort Lauderdale, handed out tens of millions in cash to American and Iraqi connivers and blithely mismanaged the occupation into chaos.
The movie alights on this tragicomedy, if only as background chatter. It's true: you'll have to sit through all the end credits to read that this is a work of fiction. But that it is should be obvious from the middle of Green Zone on, when Miller starts proving that only one good man is needed to corral war criminals of every stripe. He'll be Bourne plus Philip Marlowe plus Seymour Hersh provided he makes it out alive. The movie, in other words, is made up; Chandrasekaran's book has as much to do with Green Zone as a history of Las Vegas does with The Hangover.
Storytellers are of course free to spin fiction from historical fact. But what Greengrass does here, unlike in his scrupulous docudrama about the seizing of United Flight 93 on 9/11, is resolve thorny foreign policy issues from 2003 with 2010 hindsight and the truth-seeking missile of an action-hero superman.
Greengrass might say you have to twist the facts to tell the truth, and his film does get to the heart of obfuscation in the early occupation of Iraq. Besides, in movies, entertainment trumps ethics. Green Zone has a fullness of character, a density of detail, a cunning mystery plot and so much stuff blowing up that audiences might not realize they're seeing an Iraq-war film. They'll be too scared stiff enjoying themselves.