Boom! It is March 19, 2003, and—bang, bang, bang!—Baghdad is falling. Kapow! The presidential palace is crumbling, the henchmen are fleeing, and a black notebook is significantly tucked into the inside jacket pocket of a mustachioed man with ominous black eyes, a man who is not Saddam Hussein but, by the looks of it, works for him. Thus begins Green Zone, director Paul Greengrass's Bourne Identity-meets-Iraq-documentary thriller. For two hours, it does not let go.
The movie is "inspired," as the credits tell us, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City, an observant, meticulous, and darkly humorous account of the first year of the occupation. The genius of the book is in the details—the overlooked truths that add up to an incisive portrait—but the movie's fantasy plot dispatches with them right away. Chief warrant officer Roy Miller (the unflappable Matt Damon) has to uncover (against the clock, of course) the mystery behind the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Is bad intel preventing Miller from finding them? Or did sinister people in Washington lie about the WMD in the first place? In Greengrass's world, only one man can answer that question.
And here, precisely, is where the film comes undone. What Chandrasekaran did so well—tenaciously cataloging the colossal morass of America's small and not-so-small mistakes—Greengrass eschews for the popcorn-crunching conventions of a Hollywood potboiler. (Only Matt Damon can save the world! And he has less than two hours to do it!) Chandrasekaran captures the Coalition Provisional Authority's culture of incompetence, arrogance, and misplaced idealism; Greengrass reduces it to an ego-fueled catfight between the heroic and brawny Miller and his glib and wily nemesis, a bespectacled Pentagon lackey played by Greg Kinnear. If only it were that simple.
The veracity of recent war films is a new subgenre of film criticism. Commentators condemned this year's best-picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, for getting enough small details wrong to undermine the larger truths of the war. I did not agree. I saw The Hurt Locker four years after I left Baghdad, and it brought me back in a flash in a way that no other Iraq movie had. Still, for argument's sake, I kept a mental verisimilitude checklist while watching Green Zone: Baghdad's dusty pallor—check; wraparound shades, "Hooahs!," and cursing—all good; Bush-Cheney campaign posters plastered on the walls of the Republican Palace—OK, we get it. But Domino's pizza poolside? Not in 2003. Girls in bikinis with assault rifles slung on their shoulders? Doubtful. Wait, how are they getting such good indoor reception on their satellite phones? I remember precariously dangling off the balcony of my hotel room for a signal. And then someone hotwires a car to ambush a secret Baathist meeting. Definitely not.
In the end, though, it is not the details that do this film in; it's the setup. Greengrass shows us very well that it was stupid to allow the looting, that de-Baathification and dismantling the Army were bad ideas, and that all of it led to the insurgency. But then he tells us that we still might have accomplished the mission had one man—one rogue, truth-seeking officer—tracked down a little black notebook whisked away by a Saddam loyalist. In other words, Paul Greengrass compresses the complexity so painstakingly assembled by Chandrasekaran into one notebook that contains one secret that reveals the one important source that only one journalist discovered after speaking to one evil administration official. But in the real Iraq, there were many secrets, many heroes, many villains and accomplices (witting and unwitting), and plenty of good and bad journalism.
If Green Zone were an exercise in bubble-gum pop, I would have chewed happily. But it is Greengrass's insistence on making the thing look and feel authentic that made it all the more unbelievable. The movie's shaky camera style creates a gonzo-documentary effect that seems to be there to convey authenticity. And the frenetic, roller-coaster pace and videogame quality did echo the television coverage of the invasion. But it obscured the post-invasion feel of the place. What I remember of Baghdad in that era is heat and lethargy; terrifying stillness; great, gaping silences when you could hear the palm trees bending under the weight of a wind thick with sand and smoke. I remember concertina wire and cinder blocks and emptied streets. Those streets often felt like a movie set, but this movie did not make me feel the streets. There was no stillness in Greengrass's Iraq, and I felt more nauseous after two seismic hours of Green Zone than I did after two years living in Baghdad.
In the end, the film felt like a stylized revenge fantasy—a poor man's Inglourious Basterds. (Basterds, of course, was a total fantasy; Green Zone blocks any real catharsis by blurring the line between fact and fiction.) But Greengrass gives a good wagging (and occasionally middle) finger to the people who led us into this mess, doing what so many of us who were there wanted to do back then, back when fallen soldiers were not shown on television and most people in America believed what the administration told them: that the war in Iraq was a "reconstruction effort" and that democracy was on the march, only maybe it had stubbed its toe.
In the foreword to the tie-in paperback, Greengrass writes that he wanted Green Zone to be "a movie that would hopefully take some of the huge audience that had enjoyed the Bourne series to a real-world setting and encourage them to consider whether the mistrust and paranoia that characterized Bourne's world was so far-fetched after all." And that is what Greengrass did. Given how Green Zone unfolded, Matt Damon might very well have found in his hip a chip that would lead him to a numbered bank account in Diwaniyah containing the secrets of the war. But that was not how the real war unfolded, nor how it will be brought to an end. Green Zone has two movies competing for our attention. One might have been a memorable film about what went wrong in Iraq; the other is disposable.
Ozernoy spent two years in Iraq covering the war for US News and World Report. She is currently working on a book about life in contemporary Russia.