Amid the minor backlash that greeted “The Hurt Locker’s” Oscar in Egypt and some parts of the Arab world, a number of voices criticized Kathryn Bigelow’s combat drama — and American war films in general — for never examining the reasons that took the US to Iraq in the first place.
In “Green Zone,” British filmmaker Paul Greengrass (“United 93,” “The Bourne Ultimatum”) answers the naysayers’ calls with a high-octane conspiracy thriller expounding the shaky roots upon which the occupation was built.
Blending realistic details culled from the newsreels with implausible plot twists and intrusive action sequences, the politically-charged film proves, yet again, that politics and Iraq can never go along on screen, at least for the time being; that at present, the largely apolitical position “Locker” adopted seems to be the only viable approach.
Like most Iraq-related films that began arriving on screens in the second half of the last decade, “Green Zone” is teemed with good intentions; a strong will to put the record straight on a crime whose perpetrators remain unpunished. And there are plenty of reasons to admire and laud the film. The problem is, in attempting to fictionalize the war and, at the same time, deliver a bonafide entertainment, Greengrass created a cacophonous cocktail of docudrama coupled with “Inglourious Basterds”-like resolution, flat characterization and oversimplification of theories that continue to be debated.
Matt Damon is Roy Miller, Army Chief Warrant Officer on a mission to uncover the weapons of mass destruction that led Americans to war. Skepticism soon engulfs him as the designated site he searches turns out to be empty. Yet Washington, represented by new envoy Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), intentionally keeps a deaf ear, adhering closely to the questionable intel provided by a mysterious source called “Magellan.”
The media, personified by Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan from “Gone Baby Gone”), takes the administration’s assertions at face value, presenting them to the public as proven facts. Meanwhile, the CIA, represented by veteran agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) is sidelined when he starts to voice his concerns about the validity of Magellan’s allegations.
With no one to aid him but an ex-Iraqi soldier known as Freddy (Egyptian-British actor Khalid Abdalla from “The Kite Runner”), Miller takes it upon himself to track down Magellan and goes rogue.
Greengrass made his name with his seamless combinations of dynamic cinema verite techniques with classic storylines, alternating between the ultra realism of “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93” and the exhilarating thrills of the “Bourne” franchise.
In “Green Zone,” Greengrass ventured to capture the best of both worlds for a standard, simplistic Hollywood story deeply rooted in a far more complex reality. The result is one big muddle, the biggest misfire of Greengrass’s highly consistent career.
From the first minute of the film, Greengrass throws you immediately into the heart of the action; the blistering heat, the chaotic search zones, the apprehensive briefing sessions.
Applying his signature hand-held camera shooting and rapid, sharp editing, Greengrass frames his story with a documentary cloak, augmented by several revealing news-bite-like sequence illustrating the complicity of the American media in selling the war to the public, the haphazard WMD search and poor intelligence, the Americans’ ignorance of the geography, culture and language of an alien nation, the futile torture practices, the catastrophic disbandment of the Iraqi army and the anarchy the Americans neglected to curb.
For the uninformed public and future generations alike, “Green Zone” offers a précis of sorts of the factors that led to the deterioration of the situation in Iraq — and herein lies the sole significance of the film. However, for anyone following the news for the past seven years, the film offers nothing new, assembling bits and pieces from the far superior documentaries “No End In Sight” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” to name a few.
By the second half of the film, when characters grow increasingly one-dimensional, “Green Zone” ceases to be believable. All characters are archetypes of 80s action flicks, from Damon’s gung-ho soldier and Kinnear’s diabolical executive to Gleeson’s cynical, powerless veteran, Ryan’s naive reporter and even Abdallah’s loyal Arab sidekick.
“There is no lie in war or in preparation for war that can’t be defended,” great American novelist Don DeLillo wrote in his last novel “Point Omega.” That’s not the case with “Green Zone.” Gray is the color of politics; a world defined by uncertainties, moral hesitancies and uncontrollable mayhem. The black and white world of “Green Zone” is the polar opposite, a world where every character is devised to carry out a specific function, where the question of right and wrong seems to be as clear as Iraq’s bright skies.
While it worked to outstanding results in “United 93,” the pitfalls of Greengrass’ direction are laid bare in this film. His constant lack of special coherence has always been masked by superbly executed action sequences, powered by a frantic pace that perfectly matched the induced sense of paranoia. In here, the same tactic doesn’t work.
Wartime thrillers require a measured tempo, sufficient space and extensive plot development, fundamental elements Greengrass completely eschews. What we eventually get is a bunch of lackluster, forgettable chases that do not excite for a second. Unlike the “Bourne” films, the action adds nothing to the drama, coming off a mere pretext to expand the film’s appeal. Judging by its poor box-office performance, it clearly didn’t.
The film suggests that the American government intentionally lied about the existence of WMD, inventing sources to legitimize the war. The administration, Greengrass implies, were given concrete reports from trusted sources confirming the absence of WMD. The obvious reason behind their scheme, hinted at in the very last scene of the film, is oil.
Although many politicians, experts and observers alike believe in the validity of this argument, in the course of Greengrass’ story, and the way it’s ultimately uncovered, it appears not only far-fetched, but infantile. That is the film’s gravest failing.
Perhaps more than other film made about Iraq, “Green Zone” had the most potential to finally present a thorough analysis of the real reasons behind the war. Instead, what Greengrass — one of the most successful British directors working today — has created is a bombastic, dimwitted action picture that works neither as a decent genre piece nor as an intelligent, inquisitive thriller.
“Green Zone” winds up being just another minor entry in the long roster of failed Iraq films.