Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Green Zone

My husband and I have a running disagreement about the movies. Not which ones to go to or what we think about them, so much: just how to order tickets. He always wants to get them online in advance to make sure we get a seat; I almost always want to save a couple bucks by buying when we get there.

But when I went to Green Zone with a friend a couple weeks back, I ordered my ticket ahead of time. Surely the combination of Matt Damon as an action hero and director Paul Greengrass’ frenetic intensity, not to mention the topical subject matter, would bring people to this barely fictionalized story of how we got into Iraq, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Tumbleweeds were pretty much rolling down the aisles of the theater, though the movie had been open for less than two weeks and we went to an after-work showing in a centrally located Manhattan theater.

Conventional wisdom has been saying for a while that American audiences aren’t ready for a movie about our occupation of Iraq. As proof, people point to the lousy box office for other studio films with big-name directors or stars or screenwriters, like In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, and The Messenger. But I thought all those movies were too preachy and sanctimonious.

That assumption about why people shunned those movies reminds me of the one you often hear about how a certain star can make a movie a hit. I always wonder how the people who make those pronouncements can know what audiences are reacting to. It seems to me most of us decide what to see based partly on the cast, but we won’t see a movie we don’t think we’ll like just because it stars someone we like, and we won’t stay away from a good one just because we don’t know who’s in it. Was Spider-Man a hit because of Tobey Maguire or because Sam Raimi makes kick-ass genre movies – and maybe because the blue-collar hero and evil-businessman villain resonated for audiences after our economy went south? Unless you do a whole lot of exit interviews, I don’t see how you can really know, so I wondered if people were just exercising good taste when they stayed away from the Iraq features.

But audiences treated the unpretentiously affecting Stop Loss and The Hurt Locker, an astonishingly good movie, like redheaded stepchildren (though the Oscars saved Hurt Locker from oblivion). And then there was that wind whistling through the empty seats when I saw Green Zone, another fine movie that deserves – maybe even needs – to be seen.

So now I have to wonder: why aren’t people going to these movies?

Like the second and third Bourne movies, which were also directed by Greengrass and starred Damon, Green Zone is a current events lesson dressed up as a breakneck thriller. The history lesson was buried deep enough in the Bourne trilogy to be pretty generally ignored, which may explain its popularity. Even during the Abu Ghraib scandal, the reviews said surprisingly little about the realism and relevance of the movies’ depiction of CIA indoctrination, undercover ops, and torture. But there’s no way to miss the politics this time around.

Green Zone is based on based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a history of life inside Baghdad’s Green Zone in the months after the invasion, and of the ideological battles fought in the early part of the occupation over how to reconstruct Iraq. It also looks at how the U.S. fabricated reports about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion. Greengrass focuses mainly on that deception, using Damon’s character – Roy Miller, an upright Army officer in charge of finding WMDs shortly after the invasion – to trace the story and bring home the human cost of the Bush Administration’s head fake.

After leading his men into danger at suspected WMD sites several times and finding nothing, Miller embarks on a rogue investigation that leads him to one of Saddam’s generals, into a hellish American interrogation center, and down a lot of scary streets and alleys with shaky hand-held cameras, suspenseful cross-cutting, and breakneck chases adding to the almost constant sense of instability and urgency.

This time the CIA is the good guy, the one American agency with an understanding of the area’s history and politics and a realistic plan for rebuilding it. But the arrogant ideologues in charge don’t want to hear the facts. This leads to a three-way battle, with nearly as much distance between the two American factions as between the U.S. and Iraq.

The movie starts on March 19, 2003, with the “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad. This time, though, we see it from the Iraqi point of view, so there’s no danger of mistaking those bombs for distant fireworks. The Iraqi point of view continues to get plenty of screen time, partly through the character of Freddie, a local patriot who volunteers to help the Americans, despite his frequent frustration and anger at their treatment of him and his country.

The fictionalized versions of U.S. puppet/puppetmaster Ahmed Chalabi and the smug bureaucrat played by Greg Kinnear, an amalgamation of Donald Rumsfeld and the ideologues in charge of the Green Zone, have real bite, though the reporter played by Amy Ryan is a much kinder and gentler version of New York Times reporter and misinformation mouthpiece Judith Miller, who never seemed to be as wracked by conscience and self-doubt or as bent on uncovering the truth as this character is throughout the movie.

Green Zone also flatters the American military – surely if they were this good at tracking people in Iraq, they would have found Saddam and his generals and Imperial Guard a lot sooner. But its recreation of the streets of Baghdad generates a sense of danger and deterioration strong enough to make the party scene by the pool in the Green Zone feel appropriately surreal and insulated from reality.

I loved the ferocity with which this movie pursues the truth, and its touching, almost na├»ve belief in its importance. When the Kinnear character says it no longer matters whether there were WMDs, Miller explodes. “Of course it matters,” he says. “The reasons we go to war always matter. It’s all that matters!”

Maybe most people don’t feel that way. Maybe there are still a lot of people who think there were WMDs that just never got found. Or maybe it’s just that most people don’t go to the movies to get worked up over something as depressing as the war in Iraq.

I don’t know, but I do know Green Zone only made about $33 million in U.S. theaters by April 4, and it cost about three times that much to make. So whatever those empty seats are saying, it looks like they’ll have the last word.

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