Universal Pictures would probably be ecstatic if “Green Zone” was as successful in raising box office revenue as it has been in arousing right-wing fury. To me, the film’s main political message–that the US went to war in Iraq on the basis of juiced-up intelligence–kind of seems like common knowledge at this point, but hey, I live in Taxachusetts, so what do I know. From my perspective, the real problem is not that “Green Zone” is a piece of loony leftist propaganda, but that the War in Iraq is just too depressing to be shoehorned into a slam-bang action thriller template.
The story takes place shortly after the American invasion of 2003. The protagonist is US Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a square-jawed hero type who will be conveniently familiar to fans of Damon’s “Bourne” franchise (two entries of which were helmed by “Green Zone” director Paul Greengrass). Miller’s been assigned to track down Saddam’s supposed caches of WMDs, but he soon realizes that he’s on a wild goose chase. His quest to find the source of the US’s faulty intelligence leads him through a rogue’s gallery of supporting players, most of whom are thinly veiled representations of people such as Paul Bremer, Judith Miller and Ahmed Chalabi. Miller also tries to get in contact with former Baath party general Al Rawi (Yigal Naor), who may be able to help maintain stability in the country.
Many of the story’s specifics are of course ludicrous; no member of the US military could get away with being as rebellious and insubordinate as Miller. However, placing Miller at the center of the action also creates another problem: How do you end your action movie when your hero’s goal is to save us from a tragic war which, in reality, we have definitely not been saved from? In this sense, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland write themselves into a corner. Their conclusion can only go one of two ways: Either they can let Miller fail, which would be a real downer, or they can rewrite history a la Inglourious Basterds and try to snatch some moral victory from the jaws of a hideous mistake. I won’t say which approach they chose, but I will say that it wasn’t a satisfying one.
This isn’t to say that “Green Zone” is a total failure–or, if it is a failure, it’s at least an interesting one. The cinematography’s shaky-cam style, another carryover from the “Bourne” series, is wildly dizzying and disorienting at times, but it also provides some moments with an authenticity that couldn’t have been achieved with a more polished approach.
The story, in turn, does provide a fairly digestible crash course in some of the early events of Gulf War II, including the media’s dissemination of flawed information and the Iraqi public’s unwillingness to accept Chalabi as their new leader (although it would all be more informative if the key figures’ names hadn’t been changed). The most effective scene is probably the one in which Al Rawi and his followers listen to a US announcement about the disbanding of the Iraqi army and silently, angrily begin gathering their weapons. This sequence makes its point without having to resort to speechifying or plot contrivances, something I wish could be said for the film as a whole.