Green Zone Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jul 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Green Zone Review
    The Weapons of Mass Destruction rumour was a clever, calculated ploy. Phrased for effect (I suppose “Really Big Bombs” could have worked, but it doesn't quite conjure up the awesome sense of something really fearsome as WMDs does), the concept had just enough plausibility to be swallowed by millions of already wary (Post-9/11) members of the public. It wasn't positing something totally unbelievable - like blaming the situation on extra-terrestrial invaders - and so the burden of proof required was relatively low: initially the onus was on finding the weapons, not on showing the evidence that suggested that there were any in the first place. After all, it's not exactly tough for the US to convince its public that a country in the Middle East is amassing deadly weapons. So it took quite a while (and enough money to practically bankrupt two major world powers) before people started really voicing their concerns over these elusive WMDs.
    In response to such concerns, both the US and UK Government suppressed any of these contra opinions, forcing resignations at the highest levels (including at the BBC) for suggesting that the intelligence behind the invasion had been exaggerated. Furthermore a senior scientist committed suicide because he was accused of contradicting the Government's stance on 'the truth'. Eventually, the UK Government revealed that the report they used as justification for invading Iraq included unverified information from a US student thesis. Add this all up, together with the fact that they never found any of these alleged WMDs, and the whole thing seems like an elaborate excuse for military action.
    Director Paul Greengrass offers up his own, JFK-esque conspiracy-theorist-style take on events in his latest political action-thriller, Green Zone. Postulating that there were never any WMDs, and that the US' own propaganda engine helped promote the convoluted ruse, with the participation of Intelligence Officers at the highest level, Greengrass does not lay the blame solely at the feet of the US Government. Instead he insinuates that their biggest mistake was to take the WMD threat (which he posits was essentially a bluff by Iraqi intelligence officers) at face value and, rather than rectify their error, compound the issue with further cover-up and propaganda. His story shows how even patriotic soldiers on the ground were wondering why they were there in the first place. Whether he is close to the truth or far from the mark will largely depend on what you, as an individual, choose to believe, but since much of the story came from the real-life experiences of individuals on the front line, and given the distinct lack of evidence that there were ever any WMDs in the first place, the 'conspiracies' suggested by this movie may well be considering as valid food for thought.
    Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller runs one of the first response units on the ground in Baghdad. His mission: to go to all of the dangerous locations revealed by the Government's 'intel' and find the WMDs that are supposed to be stockpiled there. However, when it becomes apparent that the hot locations that he is being sent to (often infected with enemy snipers and booby-traps) are not only devoid of any such weapons, but clearly never held any weapons in the first place, he begins to question the intelligence that is sending him into the line of fire every day. Bringing up the issue at a mission briefing, his theory about false intelligence faces resounding opposition at the highest level, except for from one mysterious CIA operative, who secretly supports Miller's assertions.
    After the next search comes up empty, Miller comes across an Iraqi civilian who says that he has information on some key targets who have been convening in a nearby house. Following up on the lead, he slowly uncovers the pieces of a puzzle which, when fully revealed, could threaten the US Government with revelations about the truth behind their cause. And when a slimy, high-level Intelligence Officer realises what Miller is up to, he sets his Delta Force attack dogs on him to silence the investigation. Running out of time, Miller's very life is on the line as he desperately tries to get to the truth.
    Given his background in filming news documentaries for warzones, and the fact that he personally carried out extensive research into the background of the Iraq conflict (even going so far as to compile a thesis entitled: How Did We Get It So Wrong?) I was a little surprised that Paul Greengrass did not make a more heavyweight film which posited some more intellectual questions. Although it is far from the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer black-and-white approach that Avatar took in portraying the 'wars' in the Middle East, Green Zone still fails to make the most of the same solid, war-torn Iraq backdrop that the much weightier Hurt Locker had. Sure, it offers up plenty of controversial conspiracy theories, but it is perhaps not quite as topical as it aspires to be. We all know that the US invaded Iraq to search for WMDs, and that they did not find any but stayed anyway. Whether or not there were ever any WMDs in the first place, and whether - as this film purports to reveal - the US covered up the lack of intel regarding any such weapons, is actually largely a moot point now. The fact that we will probably never know 'the truth' almost makes the film's purported revelations largely irrelevant and perhaps even obvious.
    Then we have more interesting, and perhaps ironic, aspects posited about the total lack of forward planning involved in the alleged cover-up, which are largely relegated to a side-plot that is overshadowed by the hunt for WMDs. For all of the nefarious CIA black-ops missions depicted in movies, where the CIA ousts one Dictator and implants a new, more agreeable one (see Quantum of Solace for one of the most recent cinematic displays of this), the truth must be pretty far from this, because replacing Hussain with a more 'amenable' figurehead turned into a fiasco; eradicating all Baathist ties effectively severed the backbone of Iraq (as is evident now); and dissolving the Army sealed the country's fate. As a result of all of this, Iraq was left in a fractured, riot-prone, disorganised and uncontrollable state. And whilst this not only offers up a nice setting for the story of Green Zone, is elucidated upon by its script, and is also emphasised by the one-legged Iraqi character (who represents the country's population - that we have let down, and that want to decide their own fate) the film still does not really delve too deeply below the surface. Instead it uses the real-life events as more of a topical backdrop, rather than a focal point. The end result is essentially an exciting but generic conspiracy thriller, that happens to be set in Iraq.
    Still, despite not offering as many revealing conspiratorial postulations as you might get in, say, an Oliver Stone movie, Greengrass' Green Zone makes up for what it lacks in heavyweight political debate with a hefty quota of the Director's trademark action. He is, of course, the man behind the two superior Bourne sequels, and so fans of his work would probably look to this production expecting more of the same action (and, perhaps, would be disappointed if they got a film more in-line with the Director's documentary work or his pseudo-factual United 93). Those fans will, of course, not be disappointed. Perhaps not as perfected as his tour-de-force Bourne Supremacy, all of the shaky-cam, shot-from-the-hip, frantic-motion action coverage that you might expect from this once-wartime reporter is present and correct here as he takes us through the paces of having to survive a few days in wartorn Baghdad.
    Fans were also probably expecting an action-driven drama because they knew Greengrass was, once again, pairing with Bourne star Matt Damon. I'm not sure what the Studios are going to do with the near-perfect Bourne franchise now (there is some talk of a reboot which sends an unwelcome shiver down my spine) but, for me, Damon will always be Jason Bourne. It is the role that has really made him a Hollywood player, and marks a defining point in the career of the guy who co-wrote Good Will Hunting (with a certain Mr Affleck). Damon is actually a reasonably good actor and - despite the fact that I suspect playing Jason Bourne could end up being the same kind of hindrance to him that Bond was for many of those that took up that mantle - he still seems to bring us something slightly different with every new character he plays. Here his honest and determined Warrant Officer Miller is an example of the best you could ever hope to expect from a soldier: tough, professional but also unafraid to think for himself. It's not exactly a big step away from the assassin-that-grows-a-conscience that was Bourne, but it is different enough to make his character here enjoyable in his own right.
    The real enemies, portrayed in the movie, come from within: Greg Kinnear's Clark Poundstone (what a great name!) is the slimy Pentagon exec who is far too busy worrying about covering his own ass, and maintaining his budget, to care about small things like 'the truth'. He is constantly working to undermine Miller's investigation, to which end he sets his pitbull, Major Briggs, and his Delta Force team on him. Briggs is the flipside to Miller's soldier-with-a-conscience, a by-the-book Special Forces operator who is excellent at what he does purely because he has no conscience; following orders without ever questioning them for a second (which is perhaps both a strength and possible weakness for a good soldier). It's a tough cameo to stand out in because it is a part that requires the actor to underplay it somewhat, and it is a credit to the underrated character actor Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter) that he manages to pull it off. Rounding out the cast we get the ever-reliable Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Gangs of New York) as the high-level CIA contact who wants to help Miller, Amy Ryan (The Wire, The US Office) as a zealous reporter who is after the truth as well, and Khalid Abdalla, impressive as the enigmatic one-legged Iraqi who puts a human face to the terrible state of the country.
    With a script by Payback's Brian Helgeland, a score by The Bourne Trilogy's John Powell (which, refreshingly for an Iraq-set movie, largely eschews clichéd Middle Eastern themes in favour of a soundtrack which basically cries out 'Jason Bourne's just gone to War') and Cinematography from the man-behind-the-camera on Hurt Locker, Barry Ackroyd, who gives us the same haunting picture of wartorn Baghdad, Green Zone is a high calibre thriller, enriched by overtones of political conspiracy, but truly driven by its fast pace and taut action sequences. It follows the likes of Body of Lies and The Kingdom (as opposed to Hurt Locker), the focus for them all being some sort of investigation, set against the backdrop of a country in chaos. In this respect Green Zone stands out as one of the best of its kind (far better than the two aforementioned misfires) even if it misses out on the opportunity to provide a more heavyweight commentary on the topical arena that it plays in. Basically, when the Studios hired the Director and Star of the Bourne films to make a conspiracy thriller / action vehicle set in Iraq, this is exactly what the public should have expected the result to be. Green Zone may not quite have the markings of a heavyweight classic entry to the genre, but it is both a nice companion-piece to the Bourne films, and a thoroughly entertaining action thriller in its own right. Recommended.

    The Rundown

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