Rating: ★★★½☆ 

(Subtract one star if you disagree with the film’s politics.)

Wow…I had a completely different notion of what this film was going to be. Knowing that this was another vehicle for Matt Damon, directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum), and from my vague recollection of having seen the trailer and remembering a sequence in which the protagonist is kidnapped, announces his intention to bring in his kidnapper, and is quickly shown to be free and causing havoc, I assumed that Green Zone was going to be about a Jason Bourne-like character putting foot to ass and bringing Iraqi war criminals to justice while unraveling a Bourne Ultimatum-like web of conspirators. I’m not saying that this would have been a better film than what Green Zone actually is. I’m just saying.

So what sort of film was Green Zone? Good question.

Well, if you’re my mother–who was visiting last week when I rented it–you’d probably never really know, since you fell asleep within twenty minutes. But in a way, I understand why. At a certain point–maybe if you’ve seen at least one movie about soldiers and the Middle East–you’ve probably gotten the idea already. That said, I do think Green Zone goes to a place that less political films haven’t been willing to go…for better or worse.

It’s probably fairly easy to spoil this film, so I’ll just briefly mention what this film was about.

Shortly after Operation Iraqi Freedom, towards the beginning of the occupation, Captain Miller (Matt Damon) leads a squad tasked with investigating alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles. After repeatedly turning up bubkes and inevitably coming to the conclusion that the intelligence with regard to WMD is weak at best or fallacious at worst, he begins overtly questioning his orders. To Miller’s mind, if there never were any WMD, then the U.S. population had evidently been sold a bill of goods, and the military had been mobilized and deployed under false pretenses.

Miller just wants to know the genesis of this bogus intel, and his outspokenness brings him into the confidence of Brendon Gleeson’s CIA expert Martin Brown. Brown sees WMD as a smokescreen enshrouding a flawed plan by the administration to disband the Iraqi military and maintain an occupying presence in Iraq. Miller’s engagement with Brown entwines him in the pernicious tug-of-war between intelligence agencies–and pits him against Greg Kinnear as Pentagon man Clark Poundstone–fighting to determine the method by which the Iraqi nation might be once again stood upon its own feet…or not.

It’s your typical “soldier goes off the reservation” film, but it works on another level, as well.

Green Zone is a thoroughly cynical film that posits such notions as:

  • intelligence agencies inventing informants and information out of whole cloth;
  • U.S. officials being in cahoots with Saddam’s generals and suppressing intelligence that would destroy the credibility of more “favorable” intelligence;
  • collusion between U.S. officials and the print media to sell a war predicated upon unverified sources and uninvestigated claims;
  • the employment of local assets (that’s “assassins” for those of you who don’t speak Greengrass) for wetwork operations in order to circumvent oversight and provide plausible deniability for U.S. intelligence agencies whenever they need this or that guy out of the way;
  • the wielding of the U.S. military for essentially whacking highly-placed Baathists in order to prevent them from telling anybody what they know (i.e., Saddam didn’t have any active WMD);
  • the more or less intentional sabotaging of post-war reconstruction by arrogant administration officials who were so concerned with making a totally clean break with the Baathists that they were more than willing to doom Iraq to years of insurgency and civil war long after Bush declared “Mission Accomplished”;
  • that the second Iraq war was ultimately more about occupying and controlling Iraq than anything else.

You get the idea.

The frightening thing about Green Zone is how plausible it all seems. I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist by any means, but when we brought war to Iraq upon the back of the case that Saddam had WMD, didn’t anybody who was at least half paying attention think that was–in the best case–primarily a pretext meant to conceal ulterior motives? Green Zone may push the envelope of what you can attempt politically in an action film without finding your picture marginalized in the press and ignored by the larger movie-going public, but just the same, it holds together pretty well owing to a tight script. It may never approach any sort of reality, but even if it doesn’t, it’s a solid reminder of what happens when we don’t ask questions of our political, intelligence, and military leaders.

My mother, who woke up at the end of the film and caught enough of it to get the gist, suggested that the speculative claims made by Green Zone might be dangerous. I don’t know about that. I think 4000+ American deaths and 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties since 2003 (though I’ll grant that the numbers for the latter are more difficult to understand–suffice it to say, a lot of Iraqis have died) prove that the idea of going to war with Iraq was a dangerous idea.

A movie that claims that U.S. officials lied in order to go to war isn’t proposing an idea that hasn’t been proposed many times before. If it’s more dangerous than any of those other claims, it’s merely because internally, the film tracks well from one point to the next, and if you’re already inclined in this direction, it’s tempting to view Green Zone as some sort of secret history (it’s not).

With all of that said, I think Green Zone takes a well-considered tack somewhere down the middle line with regards to whether ousting Saddam and attempting to install true democracy in Iraq was–regardless of anything else–in the interests of the Iraqi people. In that regard, the Iraqi character, Freddy, played by Khalid Abdalla (in one of the film’s few stand-out performances) serves as an interesting mouthpiece. But at the same time, Green Zone annihilates the validity of the administration’s espoused reasons for going in and skewers post-war reconstruction policy for being a farce: no exit strategy, the installation of a puppet governor, and a total stonewalling of regional experts who forcefully asserted that the administration was throwing out the baby with the bathwater and seeding an instability that would plague the nation for years to come.