by HELEN GEIB
The narrative hook of Green Zone, which was directed by Paul Greengrass from Brian Helgeland’s script, is a conspiracy theory. Army officer Miller (a credible and sympathetic hero in Matt Damon’s performance) is serving in Baghdad during the U.S. invasion in 2003, where he commands a unit that investigates potential WMD sites. Frustrated by the consistently wrong intelligence and infuriated by the patently unnecessary risks his men and the soldiers supporting them have had to take, he starts his own unauthorized investigation into the informant, code-named “Magellan,” who purportedly provided the intel. He joins in the pursuit of one of Saddam’s generals, and along the way uncovers the shocking truth about Magellan.
The occasional lapse into partisan speechifying notwithstanding, the film as a whole is considerably more complex and nuanced than its plot. In one effective tactic, the filmmakers draw potent U.S.-Iraq parallels. The implicit political commentary is all the more effective for being based on individual elements that are organic to the plot. For instance, the plot demands Miller be caught up in the physical and metaphysical turf battle between a conniving political operative (a character played very skillfully by Greg Kinnear) and a no-punches-pulled career CIA man (played by the always-good-to-see-him Brendan Gleeson). The two characters’ political baggage is obvious, but where it gets interesting is their shared obliviousness. Even while they are actively embroiled in and perpetuating- in addition to being symbolic of- the endemic factionalism of the American political system, they are both acting under the conviction that there is a workaround to Iraqi factionalism.
The Iraq parallel is summarized by a late scene of an American-hosted Iraqi summit dissolving in rancor and ethno-religious divisions. For all that it is overtly linked to the dangerous naivete of the Kinnear-character villain who organized the summit and expected great things to come from it, the scene is equally a comment on the sympathetic “realist” convinced he can engineer a stable power-sharing agreement in post-Saddam Iraq.
The narrative parallel between Miller and his Iraqi counterpart Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), the ordinary man Miller recruits on the street to act as his translator on his rogue mission, is even more effective. Miller is the conspiracy thriller’s requisite lone hero acting in defiance of orders from above and threats from the powerful and the shadows in his pursuit of Truth. Like Miller, Freddy refuses to be constrained by what is expected from him (hunker down until it’s over; survival of me and mine first) or deterred by physical danger. They are also alike in moral courage. However, while Miller plays out his genre-defined part right up to the the-truth-is-revealed-to-the-world-via-the-internet end, Freddy refuses to be defined by his sidekick role. Miller goes “off reservation;” Freddy goes off script. He is a rebuke to both sides in the American debate, and it is what he says to Miller in the end that really matters.
Green Zone is notable for its re-creation of the confusion on the ground during the invasion, beginning with the physical setting. The Baghdad streets, houses, Republican palaces turned American command centers, hotel for foreigners, and airport are entirely convincing. (The title notwithstanding, the Green Zone is not a central setting for the action.) The art direction and cinematography capture the evocative contrasts in the locations: partly-intact, partly-ruined streetscapes; Miller’s unit bivouacked in a semi-dismantled luxury mansion; the familiar but still resonant image of American army trucks driving under the crossed swords sculpture; the occupied Republican palaces and poor neighborhoods scarred by street fights. Miller is an excellent guide to the disorientating Baghdad urban-warfare, while the grainy, strangely illuminated nighttime sequences very closely resemble contemporary news footage of the battle for the city.
The people also all look the part: the U.S. soldiers and non-military personnel; the local civilians; the international journalists and diplomats; the Baathist holdouts. As that lineup suggests, the film makes a mostly successful effort to show a complete cross-section of the city’s permanent and temporary population. Behavior is by and large believable as well, although characterization does occasionally suffer for the sake of genre demands. Character-wise there is nothing positive to be said for the journalist (Amy Ryan) who was unwittingly complicit in the Magellan-deception conspiracy (or the filmmakers’ unworthy of their film choice to attach their journalist to The Wall Street Journal when the character’s evident real-life inspiration wrote for The New York Times), but fortunately that cardboard character is the exception and not the rule.
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Green Zone is not a Bourne film, although one suspects Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon were told by the studio to make another The Bourne Ultimatum.