Dir: Paul Greengrass
When director Paul Greengrass, director of the extraordinary Bloody Sunday (2002) and the two latter Bourne films (2004 and 2007), announced he would be making a movie based on flight United 93 just five years after 9/11, I am sure I was not the only person who worried the talented director would put out a horrific action film that exploited one of the country’s biggest tragedies. However, United 93 (2006) proved to be a taut, sensitive tribute to the courage of the passengers on that ill-fated flight that painstakingly recreated that infamous day. In his latest film, Green Zone, Greengrass turns his lens on the US fabrication of weapons of mass destruction as an impetus to go to war in Iraq, and ends up making the film we all feared United 93 would be.
In this technically competent but morally bankrupt new thriller, Greengrass reteams with Bourne star Matt Damon in 2003 Iraq, shortly following the American invasion. Damon plays Warrant Officer Miller, a soldier tasked with finding Saddam’s WMDs. But after one false lead after another, it doesn’t take Miller long to realize that the intel his superiors are feeding him is bad and just like Jack Bauer, goes off the grid to uncover the truth.
Although the characters in Greengrass’ films are never well-developed, the ones in Bloody Sunday and United 93 are ordinary people in real life situations and the Bourne characters are superheroes in a superhero universe. However, Damon’s Miller is a superhero in a real life universe. Not since the jingoistic Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris actioners of the ’80s have we seen modern history so completely re-written, even if it’s the expense of making our nation look bad.
But intent isn’t Greengrass’ biggest transgression. By taking a hotbed issue, like the falsehoods perpetrated to go to war, the director isn’t making an insightful and piercing drama like Michael Mann’s The Insider or any of numerous ’70s whistle-blowing film, but trussing it up in a brazen action film complete with pulse-pounding incidental music and fantastic chase scenes, including a climactic sequence where an Iraqi general is chased not only by Miller but an elite squad of American soldiers out to gun him down via helicopter.
When Miller finally discovers the truth about the weapons of mass destruction, Greg Kinnear’s smarmy villain tells him it’s too late, the invasion is already on. This is perhaps the best assessment of the film. Seven years on, the Iraq occupation is still under way, most of the news-reading American public knows that Iraq had no WMDs and that George Bush’s administration led us into war under false pretenses. People are going to see this one for the explosions and not care about its simplistic message. If no one has done anything about the lies by this point, Green Zone isn’t going to change anything.
Even worse are the stock characters Greengrass shoehorns into the film. If Damon’s Jack-Bauer-in-Iraq isn’t bad enough, we have Amy Ryan as the cliché-spouting Wall Street Journal reporter who regrets lapping up the lies the government fed her, Brendan Gleeson trying his damnedest to tack on an American accent as the “good” US official and Kinnear as the smug “bad” US official. None of these characters escape from stock personage hell. Finally, there is “Freddy” (Khalid Abdalla), Damon’s Man Friday and translator, there to embody all the rage and contempt the Iraqis feel towards the Americans but slips into that rebellious sidekick mode reserved for all dark-skinned foreigners in all action films starring flaxen-haired gods like Matt Damon.
So are there any redeeming features to Green Zone? Greengrass is a competent director and the portrayal of Iraq as some post-apocalyptic wasteland is stirring. The film claims to be based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, but that tome supplies more hackle raising fuck-ups in its first two chapters alone than Greengrass’ entire film. Along with Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, Chandrasekaran’s book provides what could be the most complete picture of the blunders, pig-headed imperialism and bad choices made by American military and intelligence in Iraq since we invaded. Though Saddam may be gone, our lack of cultural sensitivity and historical understanding has left our country holding a powder keg filled with insurgency and death. We don’t need Paul Greengrass and his gung-ho Matt Damon to give us a semblance of the truth. Just one look at the daily news is more than enough.