Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dead End: Paul Greengrass's Green Zone

In his sane and sobering book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (2005), The New Yorker’s political correspondent George Packer opened up one’s perspective on the Bush Administration’s argument for invading Iraq on the danger of their using weapons of mass destruction:

“[Bush’s] 'axis of evil’ speech, coming just weeks after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, signaled the next stage in the war on terrorism and the basis for further action. The speech dramatically expanded the theatre of war, but it also did so on relatively narrow grounds. As [Paul] Wolfowitz told an interviewer after the fall of Baghdad, WMD was the least common denominator: ‘The truth is that reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction.’ Wolfowitz suggested that he himself had bigger ideas – a realignment of American power and influence in the Middle East, away from theocratic Saudi Arabia (home to so many of the 9/11 hijackers), and toward a democratic Iraq, as the beginning of an effort to cleanse the whole region of murderous regimes and ideologues…Resting on a complex and abstract theory, it would also have been much harder to sell to the public.”

It’s a shame that Paul Greengrass in his new film Green Zone also resists such complexity because the movie turns out to be as single-minded in its approach to the Iraq War as the Bush Administration’s.

Based on The Washington Post’s correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006), which documented the tumult in the aftermath of the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Green Zone sets out to expose the false pretenses for the coalition’s actions on the grounds that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were never found. Greengrass brought a nuanced understanding of political conflict in his searing study of the Irish Troubles in Bloody Sunday (2002), and created a chilling atmosphere of realism in United 93 (2006) that chronicled events aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which was hijacked during the September 11 attacks, but he fails in Green Zone to illuminate the cause of the hubris back in 2003. Green Zone instead becomes an obtuse, routine conspiracy thriller that gets lost in the shadows.

For about the first half-hour, Greengrass raises our expectations that Green Zone will be about a lot more than just missing WMD. It begins with the horrific fall of Baghdad in a rain of bombs – the ‘shock and awe’ - which Greengrass powerfully recreates like a tableau of fiery furnaces. In the aftermath, Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a warrant officer, is assigned to find Iraq’s mother lode based on military intelligence from a mysterious source. But his crew keeps coming up empty, so Miller questions the brass about the competency of their information. He gets no satisfaction from his superiors; however, he draws the attention of CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) who is becoming equally skeptical of the mission. While investigating another site, Miller gets approached by an Iraqi who calls himself "Freddie" (Khalid Abdalla). He tells Miller that he saw General Al-Rawi (Igal Naor), an expert in Iraqi WMD and possible source, at a meeting in a nearby house. Believing that Al-Rawi holds the key to the mystery of the missing WMD, Miller goes AWOL to capture the General. Although Al-Rawi escapes, one of his henchmen is captured with a book that lists his safe houses. When news of the book reaches American administrator Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a character loosely based on L. Paul Bremer, he charges his forces to find Al-Rawi and the book before Miller can expose the charade that there are no WMD.

Green Zone touches on a number of key events surrounding the fall of Baghdad. That includes the disastrous dissolution of Saddam’s army in the hope of ridding it of his supporters (while not realizing that the army was also made up of terrified anti-Saddam forces who now found themselves justifiably angry and fodder for the coming insurgency), as well as the rejection of the corrupt Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as the replacement for the deposed despot. But rather than dramatize the folly of American exceptionalism in its sweeping desire to bring democracy to Iraq, as the superb documentary No End in Sight (2007) did, Green Zone gets caught up in the tired story of one man trying to uncover the truth.

Greengrass is usually a master at blending suspense techniques with documentary realism – as he demonstrated in the last two Bourne movies – but here, watching Miller dashing down the dark streets of Baghdad, the action ends up muddled and indistinct. (Miller might not find any WMD but he sure knows how to find his way down dark alleys in a strange city.) Damon gives a competent action performance, but there are no undercurrents to his conflict. He may not want to be lied to by officials, but you never get a sense of what he stands for beyond that. Greg Kinnear makes a great bureaucrat, but he’s conceived in callow terms that don’t come close to capturing the blind arrogance of Bremer. Brendon Gleeson brings some of the sneaky humour that Geoffrey Wright brought to his company man in Casino Royale (2006), but he soon disappears from the film.

A number of critics have lazily suggested that the faults of this picture are due to Greengrass copying the template of his Bourne movies, but the comparison is superficial. (Besides, unlike Miller, Bourne is an amnesiatic operative trying to recover his memory of being part of a clandestine element of the CIA.) Greengrass does, however, ultimately lose touch with the stronger elements of the story. He abandons the engaging political tumult for cheap melodrama - and the movie flags. Miller might heroically uncover a lie, encouraging the audience to cheer, but he still gets nowhere close to the truth. In its attempt to rouse indignation, Green Zone ends up in a dead zone.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, teacher, film critic and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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