Two vastly different takes on the Iraq invasion

Green Zone
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Written by Brian Helgeland
(based on the book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran)
Starring Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, and Brendan Gleeson
Runtime: 115 minutes

The Hurt Locker
Directed by Katheryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty
Runtime: 131 minutes

Both films in cinemas nationally

Eight years on from the invasion of Iraq, the war is receiving an ever increasing spotlight from Hollywood. From Syriana to Fahrenheit 9/11, Redacted to Dear John, film studios have poured a lot of money into the genre, hoping to tap into those who want to examine the war, its effects and the reasons it began, as well as those who just enjoy the chance to watch shit get blown up for a couple of hours on the big screen. The Hurt Locker and Green Zone are the two latest examples and provide us with a marked differentiation in terms of motives and outcomes.

In Katheryn Bigelow’s the Hurt Locker, the recent winner of both the Best Picture and Best Director gongs at last month’s Oscars, we follow the three members of Bravo company’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit during their final 38 days in Iraq. Much has been made of the film’s realism, but its far less confronting than films like Saving Private Ryan. What you’re spared from in terms of gore is made up slightly in terms of psychological damage. The film goes to great lengths to examine the psyche of the men involved, particularly Sergeant 1st Class William James (Renner), the squad leader and perpetual adrenaline junkie.

Like most war films, minor characters are easily (and sometimes suddenly) expendable, but death still comes upon you suddenly. Tara McKelvey from The American Prospect explains, “For all the graphic violence, bloody explosions and, literally, human butchery that is shown in the film, The Hurt Locker is one of the most effective recruiting vehicles for the U.S. Army that I have seen”.

Despite that claim, there is no way this film could be seen as pro-war. For every instance early in the film where these jobs are portrayed as fun or exciting are two instances later on showing the human cost. That being said, The Hurt Locker takes no sides as to why these men are in Iraq in the first place. It is neither pro-war or anti, it just is. It’s compelling theatre, well shot and acted, but doesn’t progress beyond that. (And from the reviews from actual Iraq veterans, there are some serious liberties taken as to how an EOD team actually operates.)

In contrast, Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone bases most of its story on the false promise of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. In a calculated reframing of the events leading up to the invasion, an anonymous Iraqi source known only as “Magellan” has provided specific details of WMD sites to US officials, notably Clark Poundstone (Kinnear). This information has also been shared with Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan) — a thinly veiled nod to discredited New York Times journalist Judith Miller. This information was used to lie the US into invading. A month after Shock and Awe shook the streets of Baghdad, US Army chief warrant officer Roy Miller (Damon) has just completed his third raid on a suspected WMD site, only to come up empty-handed once again.

Miller calls bullshit on the supposed rock solid intelligence and in the process gains the attention of CIA Baghdad bureau chief Martin Brown (Gleeson). The highly tangled web begins to unwind with the help of “Freddie”, an Iraqi civilian (and proxy heart of the film) played by Khalid Abdalla and Yigal Naor as former Iraqi army General Al-Rawi.

With a plot much denser than The Hurt Locker, Green Zone does an admirable job disseminating a lot of information and a high number of characters into a coherent plot. However, despite its lofty liberal assertions, is doesn’t quite deserve some of the accolades it has garnered ­— namelythe proclamation by filmmaker Michael Moore on his Twitter page that “It is the most HONEST film about the Iraq War made by Hollywood.” (Though to be fair, it’s far from being “appallingly anti-American” as claimed by New York Post reviewer Kyle Smith.)

Whereas The Hurt Locker portrays itself as an even-handed, observational piece, Green Zone tries to position itself as a critical take on the Iraq invasion. While the acknowledgement that the populations of the “Coalition of the Willing” were wilfully lied into war, Green Zone’s assertions feel ham-fisted and sloppy. They position the blame largely on the greasy Poundstone character, who was clearly meant to evoke the shadow of Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Brenner. Such a projection allows too many of the neocon hawks in and around the Bush administration, as well as the corporate media which uncritically parroted the WMD lies, to get off too lightly. It’s also slightly disturbing when the audience is meant to sympathise with CIA officers and see them as a “wronged party” in the whole affair.

Both films make for good viewing and the easy consumption of popcorn, but neither reach the lofty goals they respectively set for themselves. Both films have received positive mainstream reviews on their merits as film, but Green Zone has received more press about its politics from both sides of the spectrum. The Hurt Locker has been criticised heavily by Iraq veterans for its grossly inaccurate portrayal of an EOD squad and how they operate.

Afghanistan and Iraq veteran Brandon Friedman wrote in his review for VetVoice, “The Hurt Locker is a high-tension, well-made, action movie that will certainly keep most viewers on the edges of their seats. But if you know anything about the Army, or about operations or life in Iraq, you’ll be so distracted by the nonsensical sequences and plot twists that it will ruin the movie for you. It certainly did for me.” He also comments, “Another thing you’ll rarely hear in combat is an EOD E-7 suggesting to two or three of his guys that they leave the scene of an explosion in an Iraqi city by saying: ‘C’mon, let’s split up. We can cover more ground that way’.”

These films come at an important time in terms of the discourse surrounding the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter). With both films are set in the first year or so of the Iraq invasion, one can question how much has changed between then and now. With the production of the Green Zone, will there be more mainstream films (not documentaries) at least trying to throw up the question of why the US went to war in the first place and what have been the real objectives of these US-led wars? I guess we'll have to wait and see.