Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Getting Into "The Green Zone"

Last Tuesday, a friend invited me to a special free screening of The Green Zone, the latest Hollywood film about our war in Iraq. The interesting thing about free movie passes is that you see an audience that is often not the kind you expect would gravitate to a film like this. This was one of those moments where I guessed that most were there to see it only because it was free. I had planned to see this film when it opened anyway, so the fact that a friend scored some free tickets was bonus.

Last year, when I found out that movie rights had been bought for the excellent book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, I was excited to see the film version of this readable book. I read it last year (April/May) and could not put the book down. It is perhaps the best book I've read about the Iraq War, covering the early phases when there was a transition between the State Department's Middle East experts to the Bush Administration's special viceroy leading the Coalition Provisional Authority. This book showed you nearly all aspects of life inside the Green Zone (a safe haven piece of the U.S. inside the hostile territory of the occupied city of Baghdad).

What I loved most about the book were the brief interlude "vignettes" in between the longer chapters. These vignettes covered interesting aspects of life for the Americans who inhabited the Green Zone. The three most memorable include a wedding between two American workers, another was about a group of Democrats who formed a "Donkeys in the Desert" group that had to meet in secret due to what they considered a hostile, pro-Bush regime environment, and the most interesting one was about how workers adopted stray kittens and had to hide them (not unlike Germans hiding Jewish people from the Nazis) once the CPA issued an extermination order for the purposes of "health reasons." I don't get why these American workers are not allowed to have a kitten in their trailers. Animals are proven to reduce stress in people, and with people being cooped up inside the Green Zone, they need every amount of normalcy they can achieve in a war zone.

If you read just one book about the Iraq War, I would highly recommend this one. Unfortunately, though, the movie is not actually "based on" the book, but rather, "inspired by" the book. That means a lot of creative license, which means an action-oriented film. That left little time for any of the memorable vignettes from the book (couldn't the director have at least put in the "extermination order" to show how ludicrously paranoid the CPA was? Instead, all we get is a brief glimpse of a "Donkeys in the Desert" poster on the wall). The movie bills itself as a conspiracy unraveling mystery, as one Army officer is fed up with risking the lives of his men to secure places that intelligence reports claimed to be hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction. This leads him to seek out the Iraqi leader who is responsible for misinforming the CIA.

For anyone who has followed the actual news, nothing in the movie comes as a surprise or a shock. What you get is action sequences with shaky camera footage (I'm getting tired of this "realism" in movies where they try to recreate a "you are there in the midst of it" atmosphere). There were moments when I wanted to reach onto the screen to shake Matt Damon's earnest Army Officer, and say: "Look dude, stop being a brainless sap! Don't be so shocked that you can't find WMDs. The whole premise for going to war was a lie...get over it!" I was never one of those people who believed that there were actual WMDs in Iraq...because the country had been under U.N. sanctions for nearly a dozen years, half the country was under a NATO "No Fly Zone" (the Kurdish north and Shia south), and U.N. weapons inspectors were constantly sent around to sights throughout the 1990s. Leave it to a political comedian to have the best intelligence on the matter! Bill Maher actually said on his show many times that Saddam struck him as the kind of guy who would lie about how big his...uh..."weapon" is, but when it came time to show proof, he would create a delaying tactic. In the aftermath of our trillion dollar war based on the premise of Saddam's WMD program, it turns out that Saddam wanted the world and his own people to believe he had WMDs because he feared for his own life and lock on power if his enemies realized he was more like the Wizard of Oz (a powerless fraud, a coward hiding behind smoke and mirrors).

The Green Zone is a good film, but not The Hurt Locker great. I personally would have perferred a film that was actually based on the book...featuring more of the interesting details the author covered: such as a fresh out of college Young Republican who was assigned the task of developing Iraq's transportation infrastructure. What did this young, fresh faced college kid do? Download a copy of Maryland's traffic laws! Another was assigned the task of setting up the Baghdad Stock Exchange. He had no experience on Wall Street and kept wanting all the high tech equipment first, while the Iraqis were used to using chalk and blackboards for their stock market. Its absurdities like that which would illustrate just how badly managed the CPA was in the early days of the occupation. The turf wars between the hardcore Bush loyalists and the State Department veterans with actual Middle East experience were the meat of the book. We get none of that. All viewers are left with is one fictional Army officer's wild goose chase through the streets of Baghdad to get to the Iraqi general first before the U.S. special forces do. Yawn. Been there, done that.

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