Monday, March 22, 2010

Lessons Learned

by Brandon Colvin

At the conclusion of Green Zone, the film’s whistle-blowing soldier-hero-everyman protagonist, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon), sends a mass e-mail to writers for every major American news publication containing classified documents which prove the intentional duplicity of governmental officials in fabricating the presence of WMD in Iraq. Fueled by frustration and the humiliation of being duped, his laconic message suggests that its recipients see the controversial attached files and features a simple command: “Let’s get the story right this time.” This imperative is the driving force behind director Paul Greengrass and Damon’s Bourne-style revisionist Iraq actioner.

Scripted by Brian Helgeland (as well as the uncredited Greengrass) and inspired by journalist Rajiv Chandresakeran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006), Green Zone is about applying the lessons learned from our most recent military debacle – namely, that “official reports” are not inherently reputable, that those in power manipulate the truth to their own ends, and that it is our responsibility as citizens to take our country’s wellbeing into our own hands. Or, as one of the film’s repeated maxims simply and cumulatively commands, “Don’t be naïve.” Set in 2003 Baghdad, just after the initial invasion, the film serves as an ex-post-facto reimaging of how the war could have been different if this heuristic had been followed, if complex truth had been privileged over convenience and opportunism.

Green Zone begins, appropriately, with the breakdown of its hero’s naïvete, and, implicitly, the unenlightened viewer’s. During the film’s opening sequence, Officer Miller reaches the cusp of his already overstretched faith in his superiors, storming a location reported to be housing WMD, but which ends up being a long-abandoned toilet factory. It’s the third consecutive false alarm for Miller’s team. Miller gets the feeling he’s on a wild goose chase. Not only a wild goose chase, but one with casualties – unnecessary casualties. His voiced suspicions of faulty intelligence are repeatedly refuted by those around and above him, save for a long-serving Middle East expert with similar fears and a penchant for raising a ruckus: grizzled CIA operative Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson). Urged by Brown, Miller begins deviating from his orders, pursuing alternative intelligence, including that of a helpful Iraqi, dubbed “Freddy” (Khalid Abdallah). He hits the jackpot, bringing in a slew of important targets and nearly taking down Saddam’s top official, General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor).

Success seems imminent. However, Pentagon official and all-around neo-con sleazeball Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) intervenes, sending in a squad of roughneck lunkheads to do his dirty work by intercepting Miller’s prisoner and harassing his unit. Poundstone subsequently serves as an increasingly nefarious stumbling block to Miller and Brown’s muckraking endeavors, attempting to protect a mysterious source of WMD information codenamed “Magellan” – the originator of the faulty intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion. In protecting their source, Poundstone and his Pentagon cronies utilize any means necessary, ranging from Abu Ghraib-style torture to outright assassination – not exactly a pretty picture of the highest of the higher-ups.

Though it is certainly not a flattering depiction of its “Mission Accomplished” celebrants, Green Zone is not the piece of liberal propaganda many have accused it of being. There is no humanistic tear-jerking or multi-cultural relativism. There is only pragmatic political reality, which demands the watchful interest that characterizes responsible citizenship. Miller does not investigate intelligence claims to gain an upper-hand for left-leaners. He does it to assert his legitimate right to be informed of the real reasons he is risking his life, to exercise his ability to ask.

Likewise, General Al Rawi is no sanctified victim of imperialism. Though he might be a crucial asset to securing peace – a leader to be dealt with diplomatically – he proves to be brutal when backed into a corner, killing numerous Americans with his gang of soldiers. The Iraqi militants in the film are undoubtedly dangerous and potentially ruthless, not over-sympathized or victimized. Green Zone is not interested in sugarcoating the circumstances. Instead, it views them with hindsight and healthy skepticism, concerned with solving a problem rather than following a political platform, warning the viewer against the comfortable complacency epitomized by the politically disconnected inhabitants of the titular “Green Zone” – the secure International Zone set up in Baghdad during the invasion. Such individuals, who lounge by pools sipping beers as Miller looks death in the face, lack any sense of real involvement. They are merely passive spectators, amused and safe, allowing misguided bullies like Poundstone to run the show unchecked.

Greengrass’ signature snatch-and-grab style of frenetic, yet coherent, composition and editing – honed in United 93 (2006) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – eliminates such passivity in the film’s viewer at the most basic formal level. Jarring and somewhat disorienting, Greengrass and veteran cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s jittery technique is given rhythmic elegance by Christopher Rouse’s relentlessly full-throttle cutting – requiring the viewer to actively process and decipher a series of suddenly shifting images. Particularly impressive is a nine-minute set-piece that details the spontaneous raid of a covert meeting of Baathist officials, culminating with the crucial acquisition of a notebook that proves central to Miller’s investigation. The lengthy, propulsive sequence is lean and vigorous, each shot riddled with anxious uncertainty and the seeds of tense mistrust, expressed in the camera’s nervous framings and movements. Paranoia lingers throughout, up until the final scene, in which Miller fears Freddy has made off with the precious book, only to be assuaged when Freddy willingly returns the tome, indignant at Miller’s suspicion. Jagged and quaking, Green Zone is not a film that “washes” over the viewer; rather, it is a film that enlivens the eyes, while also seeking to awaken political awareness and curiosity.

Perhaps the most subtle, and therefore most effective, of the politically apt observations presented in Green Zone revolve around Freddy, Miller’s unofficial informant and translator. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) who lost a leg in battle, Freddy perceives the American presence as his country’s best hope. Not only is Freddy a knowledgeable, dependent ally for Miller, he is also Miller’s Iraqi mirror image, a fact that lends Green Zone much of its concluding wallop. Throughout the film, Miller experiences self-actualization, refusing to serve as a disenfranchised tool in the political machinery of others. He takes initiative. Freddy must undergo this exact process in relation to Miller, who seems to view Freddy as a handy sidekick to be ordered around, no matter how morally dubious or incriminating a situation might be. Freddy’s final act, a brave burst of insubordination, challenges Miller’s authority and represents Freddy’s own political actualization, vocalized in his direct declaration, “It is not for you to decide what happens here.” Freddy wants to protect his country much more than the Americans, and, when he feels it is his duty to act, he does, in many ways following Miller’s lead while also educating the (justifiably) self-righteous soldier about his own capacity for manipulation.

None of Green Zone’s characters is perfect. But a handful – Miller, Freddy, Martin Brown – are certainly heroic, as is unwitting-political-puppet-turned-investigate-assistant Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a Wall Street Journal reporter who helps Miller “get the story right.” These characters most likely existed in some form in 2003 Iraq, at least their characteristics must have, but, through and through, they are today and tomorrow’s political champions, their narrative infused with the knowledge gained from the massive, continuing failure of the Iraq War. Green Zone’s whistle-blowing conclusion amounts to a bit of wish fulfillment on par with that of Inglourious Basterds (as J. Hoberman pointed out), but with major differences: this war is still happening and similar conflicts loom. Individuals like Miller and Freddy will have the opportunity to correct the errors of the past, to latch onto the truth, to act like patriots.



Tony Dayoub said...

...Green Zone is not the piece of liberal propaganda many have accused it of being.

I disagree. It is revisionist to the nth degree, positing that one man with the power to prevent our prolonging the war was conveniently nestled at the center of a whirlwind conspiracy. On AT THE MOVIES, A.O. Scott argues that the film is simply fictionalizing the events in a dramatic way to make all the ins and outs more digestible for its audience. If so, Greengrass is not the best director to interpret such a dramatization because his "snatch-and-grab" style promotes verisimilitude in a story where the truth is manipulated to make unfair political assertions. An undiscerning audience could be misled into taking the events of the film at face value.

One small example of how things are twisted to favor a liberal agenda (and by the way, I am a proud progressive) is the small detail as to the news agency Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) reports for. Despite being based substantially on Judith Miller of the liberal New York Times (who was also being fed misinformation), Dayne is a reporter for the conservative Wall Street Journal in the film. This implies either a) the character was either at least partially responsible for the lack of proper vetting of said information, or b) the filmmakers are giving cover to a news organization which usually agrees with their sensibilities.

This theory becomes more evident when one notes the studio which released the film is Universal, sister company of the left-leaning news station MSNBC, a station where I saw multiple ads promoting the film on opening week despite the dearth of other such ad campaigns for films (even Universal's).

Brandon Colvin said...

This is where I disagree with you:

I don't think the film makes any claims to non-fictional status. I don't think it suggests any of this really happened. I explained why I believe the revisionism is there - not to rewrite history or skew it, but to use history as a context to explore future attitudes and their potential impact.

The conspiracy didn't seem very "whirlwind"-ish to me. I don't even think anything proposed in the film is preposterous. Someone, at some point, gave US officials faulty intelligence. That is a fact. Some US officials did not check their sources or facts very well. It cost America lives and money. The only added detail is that this intelligence was not only faulty, but fabricated. There are various rationales that would lead certain individuals to fabricate such information. It's been done before (self-admittedly, by Kissinger, in Vietnam). It will happen again. That's the point. The film is saying, "Be careful and don't let this happen again."

Also, a style that seems to foreground verisimilitude (and that is a debatable assertion regarding Greengrass' technique) doesn't necessarily imply a claim to documentary truth or actuality. Do people think 24 really happens? Why not? Because it's on TV? It's not Paul Greengrass' or any other director's responsibility to alter his style in order to make sure an "undiscerning audience" is aware that a film starring Matt Damon is fictionalized, regardless of what inspired it. Even so, the film distinctly addresses its own revisionism in the final scene mentioned in my review: "Let's get the story right this time." I don't think anyone would find any statement by anyone involved with the film suggesting that its events actually occurred.

As far as that twisting toward a liberal agenda goes, Dayne is partially responsible for such a thing in the film, which seems reasonable and somewhat sympathetic to me. She screwed up, just like all of America did when it failed to call for the received intelligence to be verified by third parties, etc. However, I don't think the fact that she works for the Wall Street Journal necessarily determines who her character is or implies that the filmmakers are covering for the NYT. She might be conservative, yes, but she also eventually acts on the side of truth. The point isn't whether a character is liberal or conservative, merely that she acts in a way that pursues what's really happening, seeking to get to the bottom of a very dire and fucked up situation.

How could any of the positive characters in the film be called "liberal" for that matter? None of them ever expresses any political concern other than finding out the truth and attempting to prevent American casualties. If those are pigeonholed as "liberal" values at this point, then maybe we should all just give up.

Your last point seems like a stretch. I think that the film was advertised heavily on MSNBC because people who frequently watch the news are typically more interested in films about Iraq and current political entanglements. Also, selling ads to a sister company seems like an intelligent business move since the money is essentially cycled back in. I'm not sure there is some sort of political skewing, just standard marketing practices. Aside from that, I saw multiple ads for the film on multiple stations. It opened in over 3,000 theaters, being heavily advertised on lots of networks.

Tony Dayoub said...

Propaganda doesn't always make "claims to non-fictional status." Just watch Eisenstein or Riefenstahl. It often builds on existing truth to camouflage its political message.

Someone, at some point, gave US officials faulty intelligence. That is a fact. Some US officials did not check their sources or facts very well. It cost America lives and money. The only added detail is that this intelligence was not only faulty, but fabricated.

Actually, that is not the only added detail. There is also the fabrication that any man was in a position to piece all of the conspiratorial information together. Mind you, I don't argue with the film's assertions so much as I do the lazy, action-thriller style in which it goes about making those assertions. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN did a fair amount of dramatization, yet it still gave the impression that there was a lot of legwork and time spent in developing a workable argument against Nixon and Watergate. Not so with this movie, which seems to propose that this all could have been solved within a short span of time, and that the information was plain to see for anyone involved. Making one Bathist general the linchpin on which the whole conspiracy hangs is also a misleading stretch.

My point is that there's enough ammunition in this movie for conservatives to attack as outright falsehoods when there really didn't need to be. The accurate presentation of the facts could have still been executed forcefully, stylishly, and digestibly to an audience without opening the film to criticism.

Brandon Colvin said...

I wasn't really that bothered by the use of a lone hero (though he does have help). It's an obvious construct, a storytelling device. I interpreted the one-man-with-the-power trope as being intended to serve as a way for the individual viewer to see the individual process of one person's political actualization.

As I said in my review, Miller is a sort of "everyman." As a dramatic convention, his character and his circumstances are not realistic, but I don't think they are necessarily intended to be. I know I didn't read the film as any sort of historical gospel. I don't really see the condensed time frame as a problem either, unless one is presupposing that the story is supposed to be believable. I found it as preposterous as something like CASABLANCA - a bit of a superficially silly thriller with important emotional and moral content.

Regarding your last comment, those changes could have been made, but I think that would be a much different film than Greengrass wanted to make. In fact, it would probably make a better documentary. The crux of our disagreement seems to be whether or not the fictionalization of political events should be automatically deemed propagandistic rather than rhetorical if it strays from facts to demonstrate a more abstract truth. I don't particularly have a problem with it. The issue concerning such fictionalization seems to me more a matter of educating people how to think critically when presented with any narrative rather than holding narratives to an already subjectively-determined and skewed notion of presumed historical reality.

There are truths in Eisenstein but there is not the WHOLE truth.(I'll leave Reifenstahl out of this because she made documentaries.) There are also truths in GREEN ZONE, but certainly not the WHOLE truth, nor does the film seem to claim access to such knowledge. If a filmmaker were able to make a film about Iraq, or any large political topic, containing the whole truth, I would be utterly shocked. Such a concept might even be beyond my critical comprehension. Until then, I'll take my fictions with a grain a salt.

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Anonymous said...

You, sir, are an idiot. Keep your own thinly valid political agenda to yourself.

Chuck W said...

Not to be a pedant or anything, but what the heck does "thinly valid" even mean?