14 March 2010 | Chris Knipp
'Bourne' goes political
In 'Green Zone,' the 'Bourne' action blockbuster team (led by Paul Greengrass and his star Matt Damon) goes to Iraq, or rather to a facsimile staged in Spain and Morocco, switching from a super-assassin's identity crisis to contemporary political and military history.
It seemed like this might be the great Iraq movie Americans haven't had, a blockbuster as exciting and real-feeling as Bigelow's Oscar-winning 'Hurt Locker,' but with real political context. 'Locker' is a superb battlefield action movie but it doesn't delve into the larger issues -- and, lacking a big name star, hasn't been seen by very many people, at least for a movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture. More analytical and contextual Iraq war movies like 'Lions for Lambs,' 'In the Valley of Eli,' 'The Messenger' or 'Rendition,' on the other hand, have been too small, anemic, and downbeat to be big box office. If anybody could turn this around and make an Iraq film that's both exciting and a think piece, the 'Bourne' guys could, right? Unfortunately, no, though the 'Bourne' team's involvement means 'Green Zone' will substantially outperform 'Hurt Locker' at the box office, and they have made an action movie that's boldly political, however deeply flawed. Let's bear in mind that the 'Bourne' movies are smart, but they're fantasy. Dealing with historical events is is a different kind of project.
The focus of 'Green Zone' is on the early stages of the 2003 US Iraq invasion. The writer, Brian Helgelund ('L.A. Confidential,' 'Mystic River') is trying to get across the information in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's non-fiction 'Imperial Life in the Emerald City' while telling an action tale that follows an investigating tough guy played by Damon. As described in the documentary 'No End in Sight,' the US authorities made a number of crucial mistakes in the run-up to the war and how the occupation was run. Helgelund gets all this across, but the result is a mash-up that lacks credibility or logic.
First US mistake: the key pretext for the invasion, Saddam Hussein's possession of "weapons of mass destruction" (or "WMD's"), proved illusory; no such weapons were found in locations where an Iraqi "credible source" said they were hidden. Matt Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, who heads a squad charged with checking out places where US "intel" says there are WMD's stored. He points out the intel is bad, and soon finds out his opinion is not wanted by the higher ups, represented by Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a Bush official who arrives with Ahmed Zubaidi (Raad Rawi) -- a stand-in for the actual Ahmad Chalabi, the US puppet the Bush administration foolishly thought could be put in to head a new government (another mistake). 'Green Zone' shows in a scene how spectacularly this fails.
Second, the allied forces did not prevent widespread looting or maintain the infrastructure. Chaos reigned in Baghdad and eventually the rest of Iraq and the invaders lost the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis, who were enraged at being deprived of safety, food, water, and a steady power supply. This is when Donald Rumsfeld uttered his line "Stuff happens." There's no Rumsfeld stand-in here, but the line "democracy is messy" occurs.
Third, the provisional authority chose to dismantle the entire Iraqi administrative structure, including all Baath Party members in government and the Iraqi army. With the second and third mistakes the US lost its credibility and made a vast number of unnecessary enemies, and the way was paved for chaos and civil war in the country.
After Chief Miller comes up with "doughnuts" at every supposed WMD location and becomes convinced the intel is no good in spite of being told at briefings it's pure gold, he becomes a cowboy and sets out on a zigzagged path of his own. He's supported by a high-ranking CIA officer with profound in-country experience named Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), who knows the WMD locations are fake and sees a cover-up. Amazing how Miller encounters both Poundstone and Brown right away in the occupation's "safe" "Green Zone" palace HQ. In fact Miller has magical access. He also runs into a Wall Street Journal correspondent called Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), who turns out to have touted the government's dubious WMD stories (received from Ahmad Chalabi) in widely read articles, and she's discovering that she was duped but trying to cover it up. Dayne is a stand-in for the Times's Judith Miller.
By this point it's obvious the screenplay is as schematic and implausible as 'The Hurt Locker's' is specific and real. Hence it's not surprising Chief Miler runs into "Freddy" (Khalid Abdalla) -- an Iraqi trying to guide any Americans he can find to a meeting of Baath leaders and cohorts held by a big Iraqi general, Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, an Israeli who specializes in playing Arab officials in American movies). Miller now turns into a rogue soldier, with Poundstone ordering him reassigned to his unit and Poundstone's more cooperative military operatives out to get him. Miller forgets about looking for WMD's and is now trying to "save lives" by tracking down Al Rawi, which involves sneaking into a prison with Freddy and a million dollars from his CIA ally, Brown.
This is where things get really exciting, with everybody chasing everybody else, and Greengrass and his dp Barry Akroyd (who incidentally did the photography for 'Hurt Locker,' as well as Greengrass' 'United 93') fully up to speed in the action sequences. 'Green Zone' is consistently good on that level, but that success is undermined by the overall implausibility. Helgelund is obviously interweaving themes from a book about US mismanagement and aloofness from reality in Baghdad with chases and shoot-outs staged to give his action hero work to do. Will this movie change anybody's perception of the Iraq war? Probably people who go just for the action will look on the political stuff as decoration, as it usually is. But you never know. . .