Combining technical brilliance with a specific historical narrative makes Green Zone an absorbing political thriller, even if its modification of history is problematic.
Opening with an Iraqi official fleeing as US bombs rain down on Baghdad in March 2003, it then follows Army Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) who is part of several teams assigned to hunt down the Weapons of Mass Destruction the Bush administration believed Saddam Hussein had hidden.
As the search proves unproductive he begins to suspect something is wrong with the intelligence that was used to justify the invasion.
People Miller comes across in his search for the truth involve: the newly arrived US Administrator of Iraq (Greg Kinnear); a CIA agent (Brendan Gleeson); a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan); a local Iraqi (Khalid Abdalla); and a special forces Major (Jason Isaacs).
Director Paul Greengrass began his career in current affairs television and since breaking through into the mainstream with Bloody Sunday (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004), has managed to combine political awareness with realistic excitement in such films as United 93 (2006) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007).
His Bourne films were first rate, adrenaline fuelled entertainment whose box office success afforded him the opportunity to make an intense, sombre film about 9/11 at a major studio. When this project was announced it looked like he was exploring similar territory.
Originally based on based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book “Imperial Life in the Emerald City“, which depicted the clueless arrogance of US occupation under viceroy Paul Bremer, it is now credited as being inspired by it.
The Green Zone of the title comes from the area in Baghdad where the US forces and administrators lived in a secure bubble of imperial delusion, which was observed and documented by Chandrasekaran in his book.
Although there are scenes and characters that modify and pay homage to the book (most notably a meeting by a swimming pool), it appears that screenwriter Brian Helgeland and Greengrass have grafted on the thriller elements to make it more palatable for mainstream audiences.
I suspect that when the film started shooting in 2008, Universal and Working Title (the producers of the film) got nervous at the sight of War on Terror themed films such as In the Valley of Elah, Redacted and Lions for Lambs bombing at the box office.
It could have always been the director’s intention to fuse the Bourne action aesthetic with the political insights of his historical films, but given how it has been essentially been marketed as ‘The Bourne Zone’ (i.e. Matt Damon on the poster, plenty of action in the trailer) you could be forgiven for thinking that the studio was keen to play down the Iraq stuff.
Which is a little bit of a problem in that the film is set in Iraq and explicitly about the faulty intelligence that underpinned the invasion, along with the illusions which made turned the subsequent occupation into a chaotic bloodbath.
What rescues the film is the technical excellence which has long been a hallmark of Greengrass’ productions.
Possibly the most talented mainstream director at creating believable action sequences, he films the hunt for WMDs and Iraqi officials with remarkable authenticity.
Different parts of Baghdad are brilliantly recreated in locations as diverse as Morocco, Spain and the UK. The fact that the Freemasons Hall in London is even used for the CPA’s headquarters is testament to the work of production designer Dominic Watkins.
The shaky camera work which has been a hallmark of Greengrass’ previous films, is also present but although it’s been influential on other Hollywood films (sometimes to the point of parody) it gives the film a visceral, urgent feel.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoots proceedings with his customary expertise and skill and the visuals are augmented with some superb CGI work which allows panoramic shots of Baghdad that are integrated seamlessly with real helicopters and buildings.
Christopher Rouse‘s editing helps the narrative move briskly along and as a thriller it is undeniably absorbing. So, what exactly is the problem with this technically brilliant political thriller?
The issue is certainly not anything to do with the thriller aspects of the film but the political elements, and in particualr the history it is based on.
I certainly don’t dispute the general thrust of the story, which paints the trumped up intelligence and mendacity of the Bush administration in a less than flattering light. Where the film hits problems is in it’s avoidance of conflating the real with the imagined.
To avoid the legal headaches the producers have the usual disclaimer about characters being fictional but it is palpable that key plotlines are based on real life examples: the journalist ‘Lawrie Dayne’ (Amy Ryan) is inspired by New York Times reporter Judith Miller, the infamous mouthpiece for WMD stories; ‘Clark Poundstone’ (Greg Kinnear) is a thinly veiled portrayal of Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority head who personified the wrong headed approach to the war; and there is also a character who looks suspiciously like Ahmed Chalabi, the exiled Iraqi beloved of the neo-conservatives who pushed for war.
Whilst it is understandable that a mainstream studio would want to dodge the threat of legal action, it inevitably undermines claims to the ‘truth’.
Are there audiences that will think that the Wall Street Journal did a worse job than the New York Times in reporting the WMD issue?
How seriously can we take the film’s historical claims if names and details have been altered?
I’m sure Greengrass and Helgeland will argue that dramatic licence is taken in any endeavour such as this, but something does not sit right if a major Hollywood film is taking a newspaper to task for not reporting the truth, and doing so by deliberately changing historical facts.
There is no doubt that the basic premise of the film is correct, sourced from numerous books and documentaries documenting the disastrous nature of the invasion and occupation. But the details with which it presents that premise is shaky.
That is not to say that Green Zone isn’t an expertly crafted and entertaining thriller, but as a political drama it doesn’t reach the heights of United 93, one of the landmark films of the last decade.
It will be interesting to see how audiences respond to the film. Universal made a calculated decision to postpone the release from the Autumn until the spring, to avoid a costly Oscar campaign and take advantage of a quieter time at the box office.
That could turn out to be a shrewd move because earlier this week The Hurt Locker won big at the Oscars and this may be the time for a mainstream film about the Iraq misadventure to finally cross over at the box office.