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Green Zone

The Bourne Mutiny

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

When historians write the definitive history of the Iraq War, Washington Post editor and journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, a detailed examination of the blunders, miscues, and errors that led to the post-invasion Iraqi insurgency and the seven-year occupation of Iraq, will be among the key sources.

That definitive history will, in part, also explore how the Iraq War was explored on television, in print, online, and, of course, in film. Despite winning the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this past Sunday, The Hurt Locker failed, like every Iraq-themed film before it, to generate interest among moviegoers last summer. Directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bourne Supremacy) and starring Matt Damon, Green Zone hopes to break the “Iraq War curse” at the box office.

Green Zone centers on the post-invasion hunt for weapons of mass destruction, the overriding cause cited by the Bush Administration for invading and occupying Iraq. Fictional U.S. Chief Warrant Officer, Roy Miller (Matt Damon), leads a team of WMD hunters. After risking his life and the lives of his men to gain access to a presumed WMD site, Miller comes up empty. Back in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified Baghdad headquarters for the Coalition Provisional Authority, Miller openly questions the intel he and the other WMD search teams have received.

Miller returns to the hunt, but not before Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), the CIA’s Baghdad bureau chief, notices him. Brown, a cautious moderate, runs afoul of Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a powerful, Pentagon intelligence officer. Poundstone wants to disband the Iraqi Army and remove members of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party from positions of political or bureaucratic power. Brown argues to keep the Iraqi Army intact as a buffer against sectarian and/or ethnic violence. The decision to disband the army — fictionalized here, but part of the historical record — is often cited as the single worst decision of the CPA, inexorably leading to the Sunni insurgency that ravaged Iraq from 2003 through 2008.

For Miller, however, the announcement of that decision hasn’t happened yet. An Iraqi who calls himself “Freddy” (Khalid Abdalla) offers Miller information that could lead to General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor), a key figure in Iraq’s WMD programs, thus setting off a rapidly escalating race between Miller and a Special Forces officer, Major Briggs (Jason Isaacs), to find Al Rawi.

Green Zone also turns on the involvement of Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a Wall Street Journal writer loosely based on former New York Times writer Judith Miller. Like Miller, Dayne has written a series of articles on WMDs in Iraq, relying on a source inside the Bush administration and intel passed from that source, codenamed “Magellan.” Turning detective, and sidestepping orders, Miller attempts to find Al Rawi and answers for the missing WMDs.

Mixing fact and fiction, Brian Helgeland’s (Mystic River, Payback, The Conspiracy Theory) screenplay mixes, brief, quick-hitting expositionary scenes with rapidly escalating action scenes, Greengrass’ forte. With an emphasis on the search for Al Rawi and his connection to the missing WMDs, interpersonal conflicts between Brown and Poundstone and Miller and Major Briggs, and the political failure of a U.S.-backed Iraqi exile Ahmed Zubaidi (Raad Rawi), Green Zone spends little time on the complexities of post-invasion Iraq. But with a reported $80 million budget and the involvement of Greengrass and Damon, Green Zone was never going to be a talk-heavy docudrama.

Whatever simplifications Greengrass and Helgeland made in the service of action-genre conventions and a two-hour running time, Green Zone — for all of Greengrass’ hyper-kinetic, over-active visual style (few scenes are edited to include wide shots or steady camerawork — arrives five years too late. As an action-political thriller hybrid Green Zone would have benefited greatly from a pre-2008 release date.

As brave as an earlier release date would have been, Universal would have opened up itself to sustained criticism from the far right, including, unsurprisingly, Fox News, for its “anti-American” (i.e., anti-Bush, anti-Iraq, anti-CPA) views. In the second year of Obama’s presidency, however, reality-denying right-wing pundits and politicians can (and will) dismiss Green Zone as factually inaccurate or left wing propaganda.

With its fictionalized heroes, including a conscience-stricken reporter, far-seeing CIA officer, and a positive denouement, Green Zone ends up less as historical lesson mixed in with action-hero tropes than wish-fulfillment of the recent past for liberals and progressives, and anyone else who opposed the Iraq War.

Ultimately, Greengrass and Helgeland don’t radically rewrite history like Quentin Tarantino did last year with Inglourious Basterds, but they come close, suggesting that a few good men (just one or two) and a reporter (or four or five) could have changed perceptions of the Iraq War sufficiently to change the outcome of the 2004 presidential election.