Movie of Mass Destruction

Green Zone, a Superman epic masquerading as a political exposé

Green Zone is one of those crypto-technical thrillers I usually have to consult a 10-year-old child to explain. Riding on the bare-bottomed Oscar backside of The Hurt Locker, nothing could be simpler. It’s a deeply flawed fictionalization of events widely believed to be true (but unproven) about the political corruption of the U.S. military, in backroom collusion with the alleged lies and greed of the Bush administration, that plunged us into an illegal war in Iraq.

Shot by Barry Ackroyd, the same cinematographer who filmed The Hurt Locker, and using the same camera techniques, this movie looks like outtakes from a better film. Paul Greengrass, who turned the Jason Bourne series into sharp but incoherent political hash, gets the horror and confusion of disoriented kids meeting death in Baghdad, but Kathryn Bigelow got there first.

Iraq, 2003. Matt Damon, looking like a high school baseball player, plays Roy Miller, a junior crusader and patriotic chief warrant officer dispatched to search for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction yelling, “This is a disaster!”

This is not a movie about good guys vs. bad guys. Damon is the single good guy. Everyone else is a two-faced villain working for an evil, despicable Pentagon that reports to an evil, despotic (and brain-dead) commander-in-chief. (At times, the whole thing borders on satire.) It’s a case of David and Goliath as Damon gets slammed by rival factions: Brendan Gleeson as a veteran CIA operative who agrees the military is “rolling doughnuts,” and a Pentagon special intelligence damage-control power freak (miscast, baby-faced Greg Kinnear). Not to mention a reporter (Amy Ryan) who spreads false information (reportedly based on New York Times correspondent Judith Miller). Damon predicts (accurately, it turned out) that ignoring the Iraqi Army will lead to civil war. Nobody listens. Predictable rogue vengeance ensues. This movie should have been made five years ago, but the impact now is numb.

The convoluted script that spouts laughable clichés (“Democracy is messy!”) is by Brian Helgeland, who has written great movies (Mystic River, L.A. Confidential) and real stinkers (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, Payback). His reference here is Imperial Life in the Emerald City (Knopf, 2006), a political best-seller by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, national editor at the Washington Post who was the Baghdad bureau chief in 2003. That controversial book named names, accusing the Arab military of trying to impose a brutal order akin to dictatorship, ruled by American administrator L. Paul Bremer, whose name has been changed in the film to the Clark Poundstone character played by Kinnear.

In a disclaimer, Universal Pictures now wants everyone to accept Green Zone as a work of Helgeland’s sole imagination—an indication that the original author eschews any association with the flick. All blame is now assigned to fictional characters and no reason is ever made for why the U.S. was so hell-bent on attacking Iraq.

The question of idealism vs. greed and military arrogance is a familiar one that arrives too late to make much difference, and—more important—it’s still hypothetical. I hate to say it, because I was counting on a more powerful movie, but this film—based on nothing more tenable than gossip, rumors and conjecture—suffers from the aroma of comic-strip heroism in the guise of liberal propaganda.

Unfortunately, the whole thing rings of déjà vu. Greengrass goes for grainy, dizzying, handheld cameras to make you feel you are smack in the middle of Hell, but Steven Spielberg did it better in Saving Private Ryan. Damon works hard to make his heroic character truthful, but the follow-the-dots screenplay turns everyone into war-scarred clichés. All told, an unconvincing indictment of the U.S. involvement in Iraq and an anemic re-hash of half-truths offers nothing new. With no real third act, an unpopular war remains just another pointless conflict to be judged by future history books. Without the courage of their convictions or the guts to name names, the people who made Green Zone leave you with a feeling of been there, done that. It doesn’t help that we know there is no ending. We’re still there, where the weapons of mass destruction turned out to be … ourselves.