The 2010 film Green Zone, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Matt Damon, would seem to have admirably met demands that Iraq War art, film, and literature “be more political” while also taking care to “represent the war as it was experienced by Iraqi victims of the American invasion,” to paraphrase two recurrent lines of critique. Greengrass’s point-of-view is so stridently anti-war and anti-administration that no less a progressive figure than Michael Moore said of Green Zone “I can’t believe this film got made” by a major Hollywood studio. Dedicated to exposing the American pretext for the invasion of Iraq—the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction—as a sham, the film’s evil villains are not Sunni or Shia Al Qaeda members, but a scheming, nefarious American bureaucrat based on Paul Bremer and a special operations meanie who didn’t get the memo that Green Berets, SEALs, and other darkside operators were to be the darlings of the war and all films made about it. A female journalist, played by Amy Ryan, is portrayed as the lapdog apologist for the occupation authority, obviously based on Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter whose articles in the run-up to the war seemed to shill for the Bush administration. Two supporting characters with major parts are Iraqis and they are both portrayed as doing the right thing, by their lights.
And yet, Green Zone failed to capture the zeitgeist of its moment, the hearts-and-minds of Bush-and-Cheney-haters (other than Michael Moore), or the ire of red-state flag wavers, a pretty remarkable trifecta of underwhelmingness. What might be the problem? Green Zone’s not a bad movie, all-in-all, in fact, it’s quite compellingly paced and features an excellent cast. Still, it is not as good as we might have hoped for from Greengrass and Damon, the director-actor power duo behind the ripping Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum movies. Matt Damon looks terrific as Chief Warrant Officer Ray Miller, a dashing Nuclear, Biological, Chemical specialist—”dashing” and “NBC specialist” an oxymoronic pairing only Damon could pull off—on the hunt for WMDs in the early days of the occupation. Miller grows disillusioned and then goes rogue as he discovers the fraudulence of his mission, but the Damon-as-Miller characterization is undercut by the film’s effort to overlay a political thriller on a war flick in order to make official lying about WMDs appear suspenseful and exciting. Many reviewers before me have already quipped that Green Zone might be better titled Bourne Goes to Baghdad, as CWO Miller uncovers a government conspiracy and resists its perpetrators’ efforts to silence him. An issue here is that the lives of deployed service members are rarely dramatic enough for Hollywood portraiture, save for sensational scenes depicting them in combat. When not fighting, soldiers are apt to be docile creatures-of-habit, all too content to pump iron and watch videos in their down time, beholden to orders and their units and loathe to jeopardize their safety unnecessarily. Green Zone then, despite admirable production values, ultimately is unfaithful to the deeply social dimension of lived soldierly experience, as the multiple sub-plots depicting American soldiers and civilians at war with each other are just too much. “Don’t be naive” is one of the film’s refrains, but it is the film’s comic-book script that is naive about how political contrivance, military endeavor, and soldier psychology co-mingle in the battle of good and evil, right and wrong.
To accelerate CWO Miller into Bourne-like action, Green Zone takes many liberties with verisimilitude. Damon’s character is loosely based on US Army Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty” Gonzales, but Miller is more hard-charging and decisive than any Chemical officer ever–a swashbuckling dynamo of idealized combat manhood who wipes out enemy snipers before donning his protective suit to test suspected chemical weapons. Frankly, he seems kind of dumb; though right in the particulars, his self-righteous single-mindedness and lack of patience makes him more immature brat than “I’d follow him anywhere” leader. Barely tethered by a chain-of-command in the first place, he goes completely off the reservation–a phrase used twice in the movie to describe him–to begin pursuing independently leads and bad guys as if he were the second coming of John Rambo. As does The Hurt Locker, Green Zone contrives to shake its protagonist free of military strictures to operate solo, but let’s remember two actual cases of soldiers leaving the wire on their own–Bowe Berghdal, a dreamy goofball, and Robert Bales, a PTSD-and-steroid-addled psychopath—and then call the alternate reality portrayed by films such as The Hurt Locker and Green Zone what they are: wishful fantasies about American soldiers who see through military pretense to fight for truth, fairness, and goodness according to their individualized code of justice.
Never close to being wrong, the steely-eyed, flat-bellied, morally incorruptible Miller even passes up a chance to bed the reporter played by Amy Ryan when he meets her alone in her hotel room two-thirds of the way through the movie. Hey, good on them, but the movie leads us to believe they are made for each other, so from a viewer’s standpoint the scene’s a letdown that defies both a warzone erotic and a Hollywood movie logic that should have them clawing off each other’s clothes within seconds. Not only do the Damon and Ryan characters not hook-up, neither do they join forces in the movie’s home stretch run to jointly uncover US military and political duplicity–another failure of cinematic imagination. The off-key notes intensify in the movie’s climactic chase, when a portly middle-aged Iraqi Army general eludes Miller and his operator-as-fuck nemesis for over ten minutes of screen time. In real life, the two Americans, both built like CrossFit champions, would have run down the gasping general—who is not even the film’s villain–in a matter of steps. Honestly, considering such poor plot turns, I can only wonder if Damon wishes he had foregone Green Zone for the chance to play Chris Kyle in American Sniper a couple of years later. Say what you will about Clint Eastwood’s movie, the integrity of its narrative and its characterization of its main subject are much more consistent and coherent than what we are asked to consider in Green Zone.
For all my carping, though, I’m willing to consider that I might be entirely wrong. A movie that dares to flaunt its lefty politics and made by a director with the track record of Greengrass probably deserves more respect than I’ve given it here. Green Zone may age well in the coming decades and yet prove to be The Manchurian Candidate of the Iraq War. For now, however, for all its good intentions and latent possibilities, Green Zone is less than the sum of its parts—proof that superb cast + talented director + big budget + righteous politics + historical significance does not necessarily = great art.