"Green Zone": Jason Bourne Goes to Iraq This Isn't

Some say it is too soon for a movie on Iraq; others say it is too late. Given what we know about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), though, most would probably agree that Green Zone (Universal) is nothing other than two hours of anticlimax.

Granted, it may be SO 2003 to ask that very inconvenient question of why coalition forces invaded Iraq. Yet Paul Greengrass’s film – much like The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatium (2007) – remains thrilling till the very end, since, lest we forget, it is a work of fiction. On that very point, however, it must be said that viewers would be forgiven for forgetting it is fictitious. (Not least because cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s startling vistas of Baghdad under fire take you closer to the action than anything previously captured in a fiction film.)

Still, those hoping to see ‘The Bourne Discovery’ will be disappointed. Jason Bourne getting his butt kicked will only compound the misery of Bourne fans not wishing to watch a film which is not shy about its politics. Green Zone is certainly no apolitical view of soldiers in the ghostly labyrinth of Baghdad’s streets, but a conspiracy thriller featuring ex-soldiers in supporting roles which directly addresses the possibility that the war was one involving weapons of mass deception, not destruction.

The story involves Army officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) and his team of inspectors who are sent to find WMD on the dusty plains of Mesopotamia. But once the mission gets underway, he finds the most elusive weapon is the truth. Greengrass and writer Brian Helgeland crafted this character around Chief Warrant Officer Lamont Gonzales, who led a Mobile Exploitation Team charged with finding Iraq’s WMDs. Notwithstanding press notes and the usual disclaimer insisting that all the characters herein are fictious, it soon becomes obvious that the main protagonists are based on the very real players involved in what some have come to regard as a tragic comedy of errors: Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), the cunning Rumsfeldian “Democracy is messy” Pentagon official, is Paul Bremer; the Wall Street Journal’s Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) is reporter Judith Miller; while Ahmed Zubadi (Raad Rawi) is Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi; and the CIA’s Baghdad bureau chief, Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), could, albeit at a stretch, be considered a Colin Powell-like figure given his grasp of the region and belief that ‘You break it, you own it.’

While it is not required to be conversant with the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, a New York Times reporter, a wily Iraqi exile or a realist former secretary of state to enjoy Green Zone, it keeps the political aficionado gripped if high-octane shoot ‘em ups are not your thing. Yet it is the intelligence source codenamed “Magellan”, based on the discredited WMD source “Curveball”, which, for me at least, cuts far too close to the bone of non-fiction and demands further discussion.

This is not to say that director and writer should not skillfully embroider a few punchy political slam dunks into the plot, such as the ruinous decisions made by the Coalition Provisional Authority and President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo-op. Indeed, Greengrass and Helgeland deserve particular praise for accurately reflecting Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s 2006 critically-acclaimed book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, insofar as laying bare the cocooned life led by the Americans inside the zone (a blast-barrier-encased compound created around Saddam Hussein’s old Republican Palace on the west bank of the Tigris) while outside, Iraqis struggle in the chaos.

Rather, it is Greengrass’ aim (as he expresses at the outset of his foreword to the tie-in paperback) to attract a large chunk of that Bourne audience to a film that is about a fictional character in the real world that leads him to erroneously emphasize the absence of stockpiles of weapons. Encouraging viewers “to consider whether the mistrust and paranoia that characterized Bourne’s world was so far-fetched after all” is one thing; ignorance of the evidence that Saddam had weapons programmes and the lengths he went to in order to conceal from inspectors a range of activity that would have enabled him to produce such weapons in the future is quite another.

Back to the timing of the movie, however, and Tony Blair’s recent appearance before the Chilcot inquiry together with last week’s elections in Iraq render the release of Green Zone nothing if not fitting. Let us deal with the former PM first.

“As I sometimes say to people,” Blair repeated to Sir Roderic Lyne, a former British diplomat, “this isn’t about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception, it is a decision, and the decision I had to take was, given Saddam’s history, given his use of chemical weapons, given the over 1 million people who deaths he had causes [sic], given ten years of breaking UN Resolutions, could we take the risk of this man reconstituting his weapons programmes, or is that a risk it would be irresponsible to take?”

Approximately half-way through his six-hour testimony, Blair reiterated to the Chairman that “sometimes what is important is not to ask the March 2003 question, but to ask the 2010 question.”

In answer to this question, our latter point, pro- and anti-war supporters alike would surely agree there is little doubt that had Saddam and his sons, Uday and Qusay, not been captured and killed in 2003 respectively, there would have been no election in 2010 – well, not unless you wanted a repeat of the 2002 presidential election which Saddam won by a margin of 11,445,638 to zero.

Notwithstanding the fact that the movie shot in 2008 concludes in 2003, parliamentary elections also require further discussion. Though not so much for ending on the eve of the insurgency with a scene depicting competing factions arguing across a table as for what one film reviewer writes in TIME magazine, “It’s true: you’ll have to sit through all the end credits to read that this is a work of fiction.”

In his defence, Greengrass has produced what I believe to be the first Iraq War movie for Iraqis. (Green Zone is also good news for the box office – the blockbuster is set to succeed where Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss and Brain De Palma’s Redacted had earlier failed. Let us not forget, either, for all The Hurt Locker’s success, it is the lowest-grossing film ever to win best picture at the Oscars.) While CIA staffer Brown and Ba’athist general al-Rawi (Igal Naor) feel like amoral pawns on a board, Freddy (Khalid Abdalla), a Saddam-hating Iraq army veteran, serves as the film’s conscience. Although marginalized after a promising introduction, Miller’s informant-cum-translator is given the film’s key line of dialogue. “It’s not your place to decide what happens here,” he shouts. How right he is. And the March 7 elections incontrovertibly put Iraq’s Freddys in charge of their future given the new realignment of political forces in Iraq absent any interference from the United States.

Whilst nothing can be taken for granted at this writing, it seems yet another step forward in Iraq’s emergence as that most unlikely of creatures – a functioning Arab democracy at the heart of a region once described as “democracy’s desert”. And to think, Greengrass dismisses the war (in the last line of his foreword) as neoconservative “dreams of democracy in the desert.”

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