Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a solid-jawed soldier tasked with finding WMDs in the chaos and bustle of post-invasion Iraq. As his mission dissolves into a personal quest to discover the meaning behind his mission, here’s little to discern him from Jason Bourne, the amnesiac assassin who made Greengrass famous. It’s all shaky camerawork, grit-smeared lens and loaded silences.
But Green Zone wants to be more. It strives to recreate the cocoon – both mental and physical – inhabited by American officials during the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which set up shop in Saddam’s lavish Republican Palace and operated in isolation and denial until 2004. It wants to say something powerful about the hoodwinking of the American public. It wants to draw catharsis from indignation.
I’m not sure what’s worse – that Green Zone thinks it achieves catharsis, or that it can’t, and never could, because its viewers know the truth: this is the Iraq War. There is no happy ending.
(Mandatory spoiler alert: Green Zone is entirely predictable, but if you want to protect yourself from the obvious plot twist, quit reading here).
Green Zone opens with Miller en route to a supposed WMD site. The war, at least the part involving tanks driving through the desert, is over. Saddam has fled and Baghdad is in the hands of American soldiers – who, under orders, do nothing to stop the wholesale looting of the Iraqi capital city. Miller arrives at the site, jousts with a sniper, slips into his chemical warfare gear and enters the site to find nothing.
Tired of chasing after bad intel, Miller decides to go straight to the source – Al-Rawi, a Baathist general known to American officials as “Magellan,” the man who gave Americans the smoking gun they needed. Along the way, Miller runs afoul of Clark Poundstone (played deliciously by Greg Kinnear), a pentagon weenie struggling to install a corrupt and unpopular puppet. Despite Poundstone’s best efforts, Miller is aided by Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson!), a grizzled CIA chief dismissed by the pentagon tie-wearers as burnt-out and old-school. Unlike Poundstone, Brown and Miller aren’t trying to hustle some stooge into power – they’re trying to validate the American mission in Iraq.
The scenes in the Green Zone, a posh enclave barricaded from the surrounding city by huge blast walls, are understated and powerful. Americans in khakis and oxfords scurry through hallways still cluttered with debris from aerial bombardment; they lunch beside glittering pools, talking shop over Budweisers. Baghdad may be dissolving around them, but all they see are clean roads, green grass and the well-manicured image of an occupying force firing efficiently on all cylinders. The atmosphere is one of delirious denial and naïveté – nation-building treated as a postgraduate exercise.
Green Zone draws heavily from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a 2006 book that dissected the Coalition Provisional Authority’s dream-world. Greengrass proves a lucid lens for Chandrasekaran’s journalism, and Green Zone is strongest when it sticks to its source material.
It is, however, a Greengrass movie. As an action movie, Green Zone offers few surprises. We’ve seen Matt Damon chase bad guys before, and if you’ve seen any of the Bourne movies, you’ve seen this. The camera is shaky. You either love it or hate it; I, for one, had re-watched Casino Royale only hours before, and Greengrass’s signature touch suffered in comparison. I mean, I get it – this is war, this is gunfire, this is chaos. This is also a headache. I sometimes had to squint to tell what was going on, and if that’s kinetic filmmaking, I’ll pass.
Jarring camerawork aside, Greengrass is a master of maintaining momentum, and Green Zone is nothing if not a kick-ass action flick. Its director applies violence and subtlety as contrasting tones, using one to enrich the other.
But as an Iraq War film, Green Zone is a failure. Miller eventually tracks down Al-Rawi only to discover that there were no WMDs – there never were, and the Americans knew. He told them. They invaded anyway. Betrayed by his government, Miller writes a tell-all expose and leaks it to the press. The movie ends with him driving into the desert.
Slate’s Dana Stevens compares this fantasizing with Inglorious Bastards, which presented an alternate history where Jewish commandos machine-gun Hitler’s face into spaghetti sauce. Hitler’s death wasn’t quite so climactic (/awesome), but he did die. Greengrass zooms out just as Miller blows the whistle on Magellan, leaving the blowback to the audience’s imagination.
Here’s the problem: in the real world, there was no blowback. Magellan was real – he was called “Curveball” by American officials, and he was then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Exhibit A when he told the UN Saddam was actively building WMDs. The revelation that Curveball was wrong came not with a bang, as Greengrass imagines, but with the squeaky hiss of a balloon slowly deflating, audible to those who cared and ignorable to everyone else. When Miller grabs Poundstone by the collar and growls “The reasons why we go to war always matter,” he gives audiences a satisfaction they were denied by history.
Ending Green Zone on a note of false triumph is not only wrong, it’s facile, which scans as cowardly in this context. Greengrass could have challenged himself to show the news breaking slowly, like high tide, upon the American people, who then sigh and turn back to reality television; he could have shown the CPA packing up and leaving their Emerald City, leaving Baghdad worse than they found it; he could have shown the ultimate insignificance of the reasons we went to war.
It would make Green Zone a different movie, perhaps not the revenge fantasy Greengrass set out to film; but it would make it true. Maybe then we could share Miller’s moment of catharsis.