I was in a shopping mall when the first bombs dropped on Baghdad. It was spring break, 2003, and I was vacationing with my family in Florida, taking a breather from an unsatisfying freshman year of college and the incessant march to war that had accompanied it. Always a history buff, I was both fascinated and repelled by what was happening - the notion of invasion never made sense to me and Bush's justifications appeared half-baked at best, yet it was with a sense of relief that the inevitable drumbeat reached its crescendo (if it's going to happen, happen already!). And of course it was a bit overwhelming to experience such a historic moment, and to feel so frustratingly sidelined. That evening, in fact, sitting down for dinner at a plastic restaurant in the middle of touristy mega-plaza, I quizzed my parents about their own brushes with history: where had they been when JFK was killed? When a man walked on the moon?
I think we were onto the fall of the Berlin Wall when our waitress approached and let us know that they had just started bombing Iraq - earlier than expected, since Bush's 48-hour warning to Saddam had only passed a few hours ago, and the bombing had not been expected till tomorrow morning. The young woman also mentioned her twin sister, stationed in Kuwait at that very moment, awaiting the ground invasion. She kept her cool, but looked shaken. That night we huddled around the TV set in the hotel room and watched the eerie orange glow over the ancient city, and I remember feeling irked that, when we flipped the channels, normal programming was on some of the cable networks. The next morning, vacationers splashed and swam in the swimming pool but an uneasy sense of irreality hung in the air. In the lobby of the resort, families - I particularly remember the old men in Hawaiin shirts - gathered around the TV as a Rumsfeld press conference unfolded.
There we were, surrounded by palm trees and the heat, half a world away from the action. It was an unforgettable sensation. Why do I mention all of this, particularly when I try to avoid these autobiographical, anecdotal asides in my pieces? Because Green Zone re-awakened the feelings of that moment: the odd mixture of pride, frustration, confusion, and helplessness that accompanied the most ambitious and dramatic start of an American war since World War II. I saw the film the other night in a crowded multiplex (though the lines forming through the lobby were for the 3-D Alice in Wonderland) and before the movie we were deluged by Avatar advertisements for Coca-Cola and embarrassing promos for Kirstie Alley's self-humiliating new reality show (during which I put my head down and tried to read a book I'd brought along). The audience chatted and chuckled ironically at the self-aggrandizing trash flaunted across the screen, but they fell silent when the screen went to black. The mood was quiet, intent - suddenly we all seemed to be in the same boat again, riding stormy seas, this time headed into the maelstrom instead of huddling on the horizon, trying to squint and glimpse at what was going on inside.
Green Zone is, of course, "just" a movie. A thriller at that, a genre piece. Paul Greengrass has directed United 93 and Bloody Sunday, as well as two of the Bourne films, but Green Zone is closer to the latter than the former in its simultaneously cluttered yet streamlined storytelling, its emphasis on action over tension, its simplification of messy reality into a single narrative. The movie opens with Shock and Awe, and then cuts to Chief Warrant Officer Miller (Matt Damon), whose mission is to find WMDs - so far every operation has turned up, as he puts it, a big "doughnut." Confronting the brass and a slimy government official (Greg Kinnear), he finds himself allied with a grizzly CIA agent in an attempt to track down a Ba'athist general and to determine who the source was for the bad intel. Along the way, we get the greatest hits of the Iraq War: the settling of the titular operations base (there are carefree tourists at this swimming pool too, ironically), the "Mission Accomplished" speech, the press conference announcing the disbanding of the Iraq Army, glimpses of prisoner abuse, night-vision hunts through Baghdad alleyways, the marginalization of the CIA, the ascent of Department of Defense, the compromises of a journalist hungry for inside information.
It's rather startling - and impressive - how Greengrass is able to stuff so much of the early occupation into a single film, one shaped no less like a clear-cut action movie. And it's disconcerting when he takes complete leaps into fiction (spoilers ahead). Why make the Defense lackey a complete fabulist and a killer to boot - isn't the truth, that the government filtered out what it didn't want to hear from the intel, bad enough? (Maybe it's not "dramatic" enough which points to tensions between the film's attempt to comment and its attempt to entertain.) Meanwhile, the movie treats war-torn Baghdad as a zone of complete mobility, in which officers, agents, and Iraqis zip around the smoking metropolis with the ease of, well, characters in a Bourne film. There's no chain of command in evidence, and at times the war seems to be reduced to a mano e mano between Miller and whomever he's confronting at the moment. The film's conclusion takes an Inglourious Basterds cudgel to reality, making Miller a WMD whistleblower and exposing a conspiracy with historical consequences, yet one which never actually happened.
At the same time, much of the film - however compressed and streamlined - does correspond to the facts as we know them: the ill-advised dissolution of Iraqi military, the behind-the-scenes bickering between Defense Department and other government agencies, the poor information on WMDs, the neocon push for instant democracy and early triumph, at the expense of long-term security or cautious strategy. (Interestingly, and commendably, Greengrass does not suggest greed or even power as the operating motive here, but ideology - this comports with my own take on what unfolded.) For those who can't abide a film like JFK, the film will probably still be too far from the truth, but like that film it represents a myth of American history, something I welcome as a cultural-aesthetic enterprise even when I disagree - and this film hews much closer to the broad contours of what happened than Stone's picture.
Yet the thriller mechanics and the drive to capture history don't quite gel. On the one hand, the film is very effective as entertainment: gripping, forward-driving, surprisingly easy to follow given the convoluted plot. Greengrass' legendary aesthetic (as influential and expressive of 00s tropes as - on the opposite end of the spectrum - Wes Anderson's candy-colored nostalgia) is on full display here. In the past I've found his shaky handheld, fast-cut, close-up style to be distracting and, ironically, distancing. It works well in Green Zone; I think it's because he steps back a bit from the action, even as the frame shudders and the angles cut in time to the staccato machine gun fire. The lenses during the final chase scene appear to be wider than those he used in Bourne; hence, we don't get blurred noses and chins in chopped-up fights, but full figures racing through recognizable environments, the colors a blur, yet the overall sense of motion through space clear enough.
Effective as a genre piece, compelling as an exercise in cultural myth-making, Green Zone is nonetheless difficult to digest. Already, it's been decried as anti-American propaganda, while others have celebrated the way its message resonates with them; a few protest in vain that it should be judged as entertainment. When it ended, I was left with the suspicion that, with more distance from the events onscreen I could have enjoyed it primarily as creative work without continually falling back on the historical record and my own memories. The film might have been easier to take then - but I welcome this confusion. Indeed, 2009-10 feels like the end of a cinematic and cultural hibernation. As I wrote at the end of the Bush administration:
"But we have to look elsewhere for a coherent statement on post-9/11, intra-Iraq America. Since this is a movie blog, we might as well look in the annals of cinema, right? Fat chance! If other realms provided disappointments when it came to representing the zeitgeist, the film industry proved itself a disgrace. Not only was it unable to produce more than a handful of major fictional works which even tangentially grappled with the era, it couldn't even come up with many major works to begin with. Comic-book adaptations, endless sequels, turgid remakes - these provided the lifeblood of the most unimaginative decade in Hollywood's history."This analysis was a bit harsh; in retrospect there were films which bit into, or at least nibbled on, the zeitgeist. But by and large it was a cinema - and a culture at large - of inertia and myopia. Yet last year, movies broke out of their shell and connected again, in terms of both content and/or fluidity and expressiveness of the filmmaking. (On the latter note, arresting and largely non-"relevant" films like Antichrist, Inglourious Basterds, even Where the Wild Things Are seemed somehow more liberated than even the better works of the previous five years, for reasons - if any - hard to pinpoint). In the immediate wake of Hurt Locker's Oscar victory, Green Zone confirms this trend, and I'm thankful for that. Agree with it or disagree with it, the movie has found just enough distance to convey its insights and reactions with clarity. That doesn't mean it's easy to take or "respond" to, just that the sense of relevance and expressiveness is a head-spinning relief. I'd continue to welcome any films which grapple with our times or our mood (to do the latter, no specific topics need to be broached), whether current or recent, conservative or liberal, mythmaking or realistic, or both. On the surface, sitting in a multiplex is not much different than roaming around a shopping mall, but when the lights dim and the screen is illuminated, anything can happen. It's not an end, but it's a start.
For an incisive and far less ambivalent takedown of the film, please visit Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.