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.