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.