Green Zone

Green Zone makes no pretense that it is offering anything other than hopeful, thrilling revisionism.

Green Zone

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Khalid Abdalla, Jason Isaacs, Khalid Abdalla, Igal Naor, Nicoye Banks
Rated: R
Studio: Universal
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-03-12 (General release)
UK date: 2010-03-12 (General release)
In just one week, I had already become familiar with the hands-in-the-air gesture made by frustrated and shocked Iraqis. To me, it signified he despair that was spreading across the country, a plea to anything or anyone who would listen.

-- Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone (Haymarket Press 2006)

What would you be talking about if you just got invaded?

-- Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson)

Green Zone begins with sirens. As the sound indicates the state of emergency created when the United States initiated the "shock and awe" campaign against Baghdad in March 2003, it suggests a perspective that is not only American. Indeed, the first faces in the film are Iraqi, a general named Al Rawi (Igal Naor) and his loyal assistant Seyyed (Said Faraj). As they make their way through the chaos, the music pounds and the camera lurches, suggesting their fear, rage, and confusion.

And then the scene cuts to "four months later," amid still more disorder. This time, though, the point of view is plainly U.S., specifically, that of Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon). He's got a map and coordinates at hand, as he and his men are looking for WMD in Al Diwaniyah. In the bright and dusty daylight, they push through crowds of looters, who especially upset Miller, as he imagines they're absconding with crates of weapons. How can this be, he wonders at the men already on site. No one has a plan or much of a clue how to handle the situation, so he and his team push on, in full MOPP gear, prepared to find a cache of unspeakable destructive potential. Inside: nothing. Just rotting machine parts covered in pigeon shit that, the men note, must have "been here 10 years."

Miller is mad. He's been on a series of these search missions, all ending the same way. When he takes his outrage to a military briefing, the sort of meeting where reporters write down what officers tell them and report it as if it's news. Miller speaks up: "What's going on with the intel?" When the colonel insists the problem is that Miller's team is too slow, that the Iraqis are still hiding WMD, ingeniously always a step ahead of the Americans, his indignation is yours too. Behind Miller, lurking amid the crowd of note-takers, are two more seeming doubters: CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) and journalist Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), resembling Judith Miller in that she has thus far written down everything the administration has told her as if it has been fact.

While Brown hands Miller his card (his card!), Dayne decides the chief might be a useful interview. She's tired of getting the runaround from the Paul Bremerish Pentagon rep Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) (Bremer and Bush are actually namechecked in the film, and the president appears on TV giving his "mission accomplished" speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln). Dayne, Brown, and Miller all reach a similar conclusion at around the same time, that the Americans' supposed intel source, code-named "Magellan," is sketchy.

Miller is soon convinced that the mission is false ("Where are the WMD?!" he asks more than once, always urgently). Never mind such niceties, insists Poundstone, who declares cynically (and villainously) that the reasons for war don't matter Odious from the moment he shows up, Poundstone pounds the primacy of the (other) purported U.S. aim, to democratize Iraq (no mention of Halliburton here). This means he'll have to put an end to Brown's separate intel-gathering unit, and oh yes, kill Magellan before anyone else finds him and learns the truth, that the U.S. (and Britain and other coalition members unmentioned here) are making up stories.

While Poundstone and other American leaders operate from within the Green Zone (that is, they don't see the truth outside their secluded enclave, living in Saddam's palaces and sunning themselves by swimming pools), Miller charges into the fray. In Al Monsour, he again finds no WMD, but he does find "Freddy" (Khalid Abdalla), a one-legged local (he lost it in the war with Iran, when the U.S. made another series of blunders) who offers good intel and plenty of displeasure at the American invasion. Though Miller immediately believes Freddy (because this American's moral instincts are right as well as righteous), he is not at all prepared or inclined to trust his "on the ground" assessments. "Whatever you want here, I want more than you want. I want to help my country," Freddy moans, but Miller can't hear him. The Americans, whether designated heroic like Miller or plainly depraved like Poundstone's Special Forces minion, Briggs (Jason Isaacs in sinister sideburns and 'stache), all have set views of the world and, for what it's worth, the truth. These views, different but also alike, are not nearly like any of the Iraqis'.

It's not that one view is more truthful than another, but the fragments are stunningly disjointed and at odds. As hard as Poundstone fights to hide the film's primary truth -- that the WMDs do not exist -- and as hard as Miller fights to uncover it, the tragedy is that even when a truth is revealed, say, by the press, it doesn't change anything. Following a visit to a detention center, where he sees that prisoners are hooded and tortured by the terrible Briggs (apparently a precursor to Abu Ghraib and other such "sites"), Miller "goes off res."

Specifically, as Poundstone announces the administration's ill-fated de-Baathification, Miller determines to "bring in" Al Rawi, the Sunni general so prominent in the film's first moments (Naor seems a go-to guy for U.S. versions of Iraqi strongmen, having played Saddam Hussein in House of Saddam). Miller sees significance in the general's inclusion in the infamous deck of cards, but he doesn’t quite comprehend how all the pieces fit together.

Neither does the film, which shifts here from laying out immeasurable and frustrating messiness to grand action, wherein Miller and Briggs and Freddy all race to find the man they believe holds a truth that must be revealed or repressed. As Paul Greengrass' signature handheld style dumps you into a morass of dark streets and colliding courses, the problem this time is not Bourne's lost identity, but a profound loss of direction. Nominally inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, a remarkable book that reveals, again and again, how media and government during the war colluded to get things wrong, and often, to lie outright. And in the end, it takes up Chandrasekaran's best hope, that, "If the people of the United States had the real story about what their government had done in Iraq, the occupation would be over already."

It's a Three Days of the Condor-ish kind of hope, that somehow, if only Judith Miller or Chris Matthews or even Tom Friedman stopped lying about Iraq, that a decent end might be realized. It is, indeed, very pretty to think so, and the film makes no pretense that it is offering anything other than such hopeful, thrilling revisionism. But after all the storytelling, the complications of truth are important too, even when they're not pretty.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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