Saturday, July 31, 2010

Green Zone (Universal, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Green Zone, an odd production released earlier this year to almost total disinterest at the box office but one which I thought was a great movie and a far better film about the Iraq war than The Hurt Locker. Green Zone was inspired by a book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran called Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. It’s always difficult to take a work of nonfiction and extract a story from it so it can be filmed, but in this case screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Paul Greengrass (interestingly traversing the other side of the ideological street from his film United 93, which celebrated the heroism of the crew members and passengers aboard the one plane whose occupants fought back on September 11, 2001, with the result that it crashed in a Pennsylvania forest and the only people who died from it were those aboard) managed it by tapping into traditional war-movie iconography — in this case, the righteously honest servicemember (Matt Damon as officer Miller, head of a unit that’s supposed to be searching newly U.S.-occupied Baghdad for the weapons of mass destruction) going up against the authorities — and managed to create a film that’s both a nail-biting thriller and a clear-cut statement against the war and the pretensions of the Bush administration that got us into it and the free-market young Republican crazies sent over to staff the occupation who helped turn it into a quagmire.

Not that much of Green Zone actually takes place in the Green Zone, but enough of it does to make the point: the U.S. officials (both civilian and military) charged with running Iraq after the occupation not only locked themselves away in a fortified compound (at the time I remember reflecting on the absurdity of the designation of the grounds around Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace as the “green zone” and all of the rest of Iraq as the “red zone”) but lounged around the swimming pool with scantily clad girls, drank alcohol (a bozo-no-no in a Muslim country) and watched American TV from satellite feeds. The good guys in Green Zone are Miller; Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), an old CIA hand skeptical of the intelligence the U.S. was receiving about the supposed WMD’s in Iraq; Freddy (Khalid Abdalla, an Egyptian actor who had to re-learn Arabic in the Iraqi dialect to be credible as an Iraqi native), who tips off Miller to a meeting of former Iraqi generals plotting a resistance and gets adopted as Miller’s translator; and — surprisingly — one of the Iraqi generals, al-Rawi (Igal Naor), who’s on the infamous playing cards of the supposed worst people in Saddam’s regime but whom Miller and Brown regard as one of the few people who can actually reunite Iraq and bring it stable native government.

The bad guys are Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) and his aide (Bryan Reents), stand-ins for all the idiots in the occupation’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) who, in the interest of totally purging the ancien regime, dissolved the Iraqi army and thereby leaving the country full of tens of thousands of pissed-off unemployed men with guns and the knowledge of how to use them; Lawrie Dane (Amy Ryan), Wall Street Journal reporter whose pre-war dispatches that there definitely were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq fueled popular support for the war (she was obviously modeled on real-life New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and her character name seems an in-joke reference to Miller’s former writing partner, Laurie Mylroie, who co-authored the Miller dispatches and book Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf that built up U.S. support for the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1990-91); and Iraqi exile Ahmed Zubaidi (Raad Rawi), a character obviously based on Ahmed Chalabi, who engineered the phony intelligence on WMD in the first place and thereby helped spark the U.S.’s determination to attack and occupy Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The plot is pretty simple: just after the U.S. occupation in 2003, Miller leads his men throughout Baghdad on fruitless searches for WMD in all the sites his “intel” tells him they’re to be found — and in one of them he finds a toilet factory while another is a children’s playground — and it gradually dawns on him that the reason he’s not finding WMD is there aren’t any to be found. He hooks up with Brown and also with Freddy, who tips him to al-Rawi’s whereabouts — but al-Rawi’s guards engage the U.S. servicemembers in a firefight that allows al-Rawi to get away. Freddy then makes contact with an Iraqi informant, Seyyed Hamza (Said Faraj) — who, unlike Freddy, speaks no English — who offers to turn in al-Rawi in exchange for payment and safe passage out of Iraq for himself and his family. Only other U.S. forces, on orders from Poundstone, round up Seyyed as part of a general sweep and take him to a detention camp, where he’s tortured. Miller gets a copy of a little red book containing details of the still-nascent Iraqi resistance and wants to hold on to it and give it to Brown — but he’s forced to relinquish it to Poundstone and his staff on orders from Washington, D.C., and he knows what that’s going to mean: instead of actually trying to work with any of these people, the U.S. goon squads will simply kill as many as they can and capture, detain and torture the rest.

Eventually Miller tracks down al-Rawi and offers him $1 million as a bribe to side with the Americans and become the public face of the new Iraq — the implication is that Iraq’s best fate would be to have a hopefully kinder, gentler Saddam put back in power — but al-Rawi is killed, not by rival Americans but by Freddy, who was all too aware of Saddam’s depradations (he has only one leg because he lost the other in Iraq’s insane 1980-88 war with Iran) and the last thing he wants is to see another Saddam-like general ruling the country. What makes Green Zone a good movie is its expert balance of thriller-type action and serious politics — the action keeps us on the edge of our seats but we never forget the subtext about the war itself and the sheer pointlessness (it turns out that Zubaidi himself was the mysterious “Magellan” — Helgeland’s stand-in for the real-life Iraqi defector “Curveball” — who fed Poundstone false information on Iraq’s WMD’s, and Poundstone in turn was the anonymous source Lawrie Dane relied on for her articles) of the U.S. invasion and its justification by weapons that didn’t exist.

None of the Iraq War movies have been successful at the box office — even The Hurt Locker, despite its Academy Award cachet, merely did somewhat less badly than the rest — and Green Zone was an almost total flop, partly I suspect because while one could enjoy The Hurt Locker whether or not one supported the war, one would pretty much have to have opposed it from the get-go to find Green Zone entertaining. One irony of Green Zone is that the tactic Miller eventually adopts — find the leaders of the Iraqi resistance and bribe them to stop resisting — is essentially what the U.S. actually did in the so-called “surge” of 2007; what pushed the U.S. involvement in Iraq out of crisis mode and enabled President Bush to claim something of a victory was not the stationing of the additional troops so much as the U.S.’s decision to buy out the Sunni resistance leaders and bribe them not to keep fighting: the real source of the so-called “Sunni Awakening”!