Our country is so polarized, that a superb military action thriller–one that creates a powerful tribute to our men and women in uniform, and shows us what hazards those brave Americans face every day in the Mideast–is called un-American because some people think that no American movie should base a fictionalized story on the fact that WMD (weapons of mass destruction) were not found in Iraq. I’m sure some people are going to call me un-American because I liked the movie. So be it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion in this country.
Feeling the need to prove the filmmakers’ patriotic worthiness, I present some background about them. The film is inspired by (notice, not based on) a book entitled Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (Random House, 2007), written by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, former Baghdad Bureau Chief of the Washington Post. It has more than a hundred comments on Amazon.com. ,so it must have a wide range of reader opinions which you can easily check out, or go to the author’s website at http://www.rajivc.com/. There are a few copies of the book in the library.
The director of the film is Paul Greengrass, who directed the best 9/11 film, United 903 (2006), which affected me so much I can’t even think about the movie without crying. That means, to me, although he’s British, Greengrass has a compassionate perspective on Americans and their struggle against terrorists. He’s also well known for directing two Bourne movies, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004). As any fan of the Bourne movies knows, they are top-notch action thrillers. So you could rightly assume another action thriller directed by Greengrass would be enjoyable. And it is. The action sequences were heart-pounding and the combat scenes were so realistic that I could barely breathe for the tension they created. Though different in specific subject matter from the superb Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, these scenes were similar in their shaky-cam, on-the-spot documentary style that makes you feel you are right there inside the fear of the soldiers and smelling their sweat.
The screenwriter is Brian Helgeland, who was nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of Mystic River (based on Dennis Lehane’s book) which I think is one of the best movies of the past ten years. His next project is Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe, previews of which are in the theatres now. In other words, this is a scribe who knows how to tell action stories and create memorable characters.
The setting. The movie was not shot in Iraq but in Spain and Morocco. But the scenes are so astonishingly real it’s hard to believe they weren’t shot in Bagdad in the first weeks of the war. Special kudos go to the director and his fine team of location scouts. I’ve never been to Iraq, nor seen battle up close, but the locations were so convincing that I really felt I had gained some sense of the terrifying experiences that our fighting men and women go through in urban desert warfare.
The actors. They’re all convincing and memorable. Matt Damon (from the Bourne movies and most recently nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for Invictus) leads a remarkable international cast, noted for their believability, intensity and spare dialogue. Damon plays Chief Warrant Petty Officer Roger Miller, whose job, four weeks after the invasion of “shock and awe” is to lead search teams to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Alas, Miller loses several of his men in the searches and already three dangerous operations have tuned up nothing but empty buildings filled with ten years of pigeon poop–discoveries that are not worth the lives of his men. He’s convinced that something is seriously wrong with the intelligence reports. Agreeing with him is the reality-hardened CIA Bagdad Chief, Martin Brown, (Brendan Gleeson), who tells Miller he won’t find any WMD on his next mission either. No matter what the intel says, the CIA agent tells him, there are no weapons of mass destruction.
Meanwhile, the American bureaucrats, lead by Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), are pushing the Army, particularly Miller’s unit, to hurry up and find the WMD because “the whole world is waiting.” Especially eager for discovery is a famous American journalist Lawrie Dayne, (Amy Ryan). She’s been basing her high profile articles on a confidential agreement with Poundstone. He gives her exclusive information and she agrees to keep his identity secret. A cozy arrangement, except for one thing — Poundstone is lying. He tells Dayne, and she reports to the American public, that a highly placed Iraqi informer, known as “Magellan,” has identified the WMD sites. As a former journalist, I found the Lawrie Dayne to be the most shallow and least credible character No journalist worth her byline would base such important information on one source, and no journalist’s editor would allow it. But for the sake of script brevity, I guess, the character was given only one dimension.
To find the truth about the WMD intel and save the lives of his men–and because this is a movie and thus requires the willing suspension of disbelief — Miller decides to set off on his own to find Magellan.
Miller’s junior officer refuses to follow him. “With all due respect sir,” he says, in essence speaking for all those who don’t want to delve into the moral implications of what they do. “We have job to do. It doesn’t matter why we’re doing it.”
“The reasons we go to war always matter,” Miller fires back, stating the premise of the film. To get other countries to support us when we go to war the next time, he explains, we have to tell them the truth about why we went to war this time. The heart of a diplomat in the explosive-laced uniform of a soldier.
In movies, rogue warriors blithely go off single-handedly to fight against impossible odds and win their wars. In real life, a soldier who acted like Miller in such a chaotic war zone would have been killed; or captured, tortured and killed. No matter if he did accomplish his own mission, he would have been court martialled. But in the movies, you have to have a single hero, so Matt Damon, full of Bourne bravado, gets to go off on his own. Helping Damon in this mad mission is an Iraqi patriot who speaks English, named Freddy (Khalid Abdalla).
Lots of action sequences later, including fighting off a Special Forces unit who has been ordered to stop him, Miller manages to find Magellan. It turns out Magellan is the Jack of Clubs on the Iraqi Most Wanted war criminals card deck, none other than Saddam Hussein’s former second in command, General Al Rawi (Ygal Naor).
And yes, the general is indeed the intel source the Americans claim he was–but he did not tell the Americans where WMD sites were. He told them there were no WMD sites, that they had all been dismantled in 1991. He fears the Americans are moving on their own agenda–to force democracy on Iraq–without regard to the reality of the country’s history or demographics.
Now Miller has the truth. But the truth, Miller discovers, doesn’t solve anything, not for him, not for Iraq and certainly not for the U.S. WMD and the search for them is only one issue. In brilliant understatement, the film shows the tip of the iceberg on the other problems—ancient ethnic hatreds; the unwise dissolution of the Iraq army; the destruction of the country’s basic resources so millions of people were desperate for basic necessities like water and food and shelter; the imposition of an American puppet whom the Iraqi people hated– just to mention a few things.
Alas, as good a mainstream action thriller as Green Zone is, it has acquired the Iraq-war movie curse–meaning it is bombing at the box office. Americans are just not interested in seeing this war on screen. (Dare we call that response un-American?) Even The Hurt Locker, which won the Academy Award as best picture of the year, is barely scraping by with ticket revenues.
Other fine Iraq war movies lost in this ostrich-in-sand attitude are The Messenger (for which Woody Harrelson should have won the Oscar as best-supporting actor); Taking Chance, a superb TV movie following the return of a slain soldier’s body across country to his family, starring Kevin Bacon; an American spy film, Body of Lies (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe); and In the Valley of Elah, a riveting story about how the war follows many of our soldiers home, starring Tommy Lee Jones.
Green Zone is a masterfully made movie, full of thrilling action, great performances and a bone-tight script. It’s the latest in a short but worthy list of American-made movies about the war in Iraq. Perhaps Americans could forego their political rancor long enough to spend their entertainment dollars on films that prove we care about the men and women who are laying down their lives for us on foreign soil.