The liars inside the Green Zone

March 25, 2010

Eric Ruder reviews a new film that revolves around how the U.S. government lied to sell the public on the invasion of Iraq.

"THIS IS the third straight time," mutters Roy Miller, the warrant officer played by Matt Damon in Green Zone, as his weapons inspections team again comes up dry.

It's April 2003, four weeks after "shock and awe," and Miller is using U.S. intelligence to hunt for stockpiles of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which served as the Bush administration's central justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Green Zone, directed by Paul Greengrass who also made Bloody Sunday and United 93, transports us back in time to the heady days when the neoconservatives still had their swagger and Bush was putting the finishing touches on his "Mission Accomplished" speech.

The only problem is that the intelligence being used by Miller's team to locate WMD sites is colder than the daiquiris being served poolside inside Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, where a motley crew of U.S. spooks and Washington interns have set up the nerve center of the "new Iraq."

Miller's quest to uncover the source of the faulty intelligence drives Green Zone's plot, and the same jittery, hand-held camera work that Greengrass used to such effect in his direction of the second and third entries in the Jason Bourne franchise takes the viewer along for the dizzying ride.

Matt Damon stars in The Green Zone
Matt Damon stars in The Green Zone

It doesn't take long for Miller to stumble into the behind-the-scenes struggle between Pentagon intelligence official Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) and grizzled CIA veteran Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), which is a rough analogue of the real-world schism in post-invasion Iraq between the neoconservatives at the Pentagon and the "realists" at the CIA.

BASED ON the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post's former Baghdad bureau chief, Green Zone artfully fictionalizes while remaining faithful to the facts, peering into the dark recesses of the American war effort.

In addition to the cooked intelligence used to poke and prod the American public into backing the war effort, Green Zone also depicts the lack of gasoline and electricity that Iraqis must contend with, a near-riot because of a lack of drinking water, the use of mock execution as an interrogation technique and the (fatal) torture of detainees.

Presumably, this is what earned the film Michael Moore's praise as "the most honest film about the Iraq war made by Hollywood" and other critics' disparagement as a "left-wing editorial"--or according to one Iraq war veteran, a "dramatization of dubious left-wing talking points" that threatens to "undermine an ongoing war effort."

Review: Movies

Green Zone, directed by Paul Greengrass, starring Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear and Brendan Gleeson.

But if anything, Green Zone should be faulted for pulling its punches. After all, the central thrust of the plot--that U.S. officials made up the intelligence they needed to justify the war that they wanted--is now a well-established and non-controversial fact.

In fact, some of the peripheral plot elements seem under-explored and even sugarcoated in a futile attempt to avoid the label of "left propaganda."

Take, for example, Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan)--a stand-in for noxious New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose faulty reporting on Iraq's weapons programs helped drum up support for the war.

Green Zone makes Dayne out to be a well-meaning reporter duped into transmitting lies from U.S. officials. In truth, Miller was a cheerleader for the war, and she's now a fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute.

Or take the pronouncement by Martin Brown, the CIA guy, that Iraq is a "powder keg of ethnic division waiting to explode." For Brown, this explains why the U.S. needs to cut a deal with the Baathist generals. "Now that Saddam is gone, they are the only ones who can hold the place together," says Brown.

But it was the U.S. that consciously played up the long-dormant tensions between Iraq's Sunni and Shia, alternately backing one side, then the other, and stoking fears designed to insure itself a role as the ultimate arbiter of political affairs in post-invasion Iraq. Green Zone does little to show U.S. culpability for the civil war that is foreshadowed in the film's closing scenes.

Early box-office numbers suggest that Green Zone is not playing to large audiences, buried by the far more successful Alice in Wonderland.

The long delay of Green Zone's debut, which was initially planned to release before the 2008 presidential election, is certainly one reason for the film's diminished impact. But it's unfortunate that more people aren't flocking to see a powerful flesh-and-blood portrayal of the terrible cost of a U.S. war of choice.

The takeaway lesson of this cautionary tale--that the government lies to cajole a reluctant public into support for war--needs to be learned at the level of instinct, especially as U.S. officials are again busily using the media to manage public perceptions of the Afghanistan escalation.

More people should be exposed to Khalid Abdalla's especially compelling portrayal of Freddy, an Iraqi translator helping Miller's team, who captures the mélange of dashed hopes and simmering desperation that grips all of Iraq. "It is not for you to decide what happens here," Freddy tells Miller in a slow and deliberate voice.

In the end, Green Zone is a compelling film, and even if it doesn't make any groundbreaking contributions to the action-thriller genre, it is refreshing to see an alternative to the tired Hollywood formula of U.S. spies, soldiers and pilots "keeping us safe" by killing droves of evil Arab terrorists. As Green Zone shows, the people of Iraq are the ones who have been terrorized.

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