Recently I received a promotional copy of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s best-selling nonfiction book about the botched U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 and ’04. When I first pulled it out of the envelope, though, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Matt Damon stared at me from the cover, clad in U.S. Army gear and ready for some serious ass-kicking. now a major motion picture, read the cover copy. from the director of the bourne supremacy & the bourne ultimatum . . . matt damon . . . GREEN ZONE. At the bottom was a note identifying the paperback as a “special edition” of Chandrasekaran’s book.
Now that I’ve seen the movie, I can tell you that its main similarity to the book is that both are set in post-invasion Iraq. In fact the paperback reminds me of those old classroom scenes where a kid hides a comic book inside his textbook—except in this case it’s the textbook that’s hidden inside the comic.
As director Paul Greengrass explains in his brief introduction to the new edition (the “special” part), he wanted to make a movie that would expose the huge audience for the Bourne thrillers to the real-world skulduggery by which the Bush administration sold the Iraq invasion as a hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Instead of everyman spy Jason Bourne, Damon would play an everyman soldier who discovers that his raids on supposed WMD sites are based on worthless intelligence reports. The project quickly stalled, but then Robert Bookman at Creative Artists Agency sent Greengrass a copy of Chandrasekaran’s book. “For all of us involved,” writes Greengrass, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City was something of a beacon that guided us on our long journey toward the screen.”
Ari Gold couldn’t have cut a cannier deal: Universal Pictures gets to say the movie was “inspired by” a critically acclaimed piece of journalism, and Random House gets to put a picture of Matt Damon on the book jacket. But of course this synergistic flimflam hardly compares with the political flimflam that led the U.S. into a disgraceful war, establishing a precedent for preemptive invasion and killing at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians. To read Imperial Life in the Emerald City is to be infuriated all over again by the Bush administration’s arrogance, incompetence, and partisanship. The book opens with “Versailles on the Tigris,” a priceless sketch of the good life inside the fortified gates of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Green Zone. Inside this cultural bubble, Republican appointees shopped, sunned themselves by the pool, and enjoyed CPA-sponsored movies, workout gyms, dance classes, and other entertainments, largely oblivious to the suffering outside the zone’s 17-foot concrete walls. As portrayed by Chandrasekaran, the place was an incubator for blind ideology, wishful thinking, and foolhardy decisions and a perfect metaphor for the neocon fantasy of transplanting capitalist democracy to Iraq.
In subsequent chapters Chandrasekaran examines various aspects of the reconstruction, many of which were doomed by lack of planning, lack of foresight, inadequate funding, and unrealistic deadlines. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) manages to work two of these story lines into Green Zone, however briefly: the catastrophic decisions of CPA administrator Paul Bremer to purge Baath Party members from all levels of government, which decimated state agencies, and to dissolve the Iraqi military, which inflated the ranks of the insurgency. But what makes Imperial Life in the Emerald City an important document is how diligently Chandrasekaran covers the whole spectrum of Iraqi civil society, exposing the CPA’s bungling in more prosaic matters that were mostly ignored by TV news: the electrical grid, the communications network, the hospital system, the university system, the stock exchange. These aren’t exactly things Matt Damon could sort out with a burst of automatic-weapon fire.
Failure was inevitable because, as Chandrasekaran documents again and again, critical administrative posts were filled by political cronies and neoconservative yes-men without the requisite knowledge or skills. To reopen the Iraqi stock exchange, the Pentagon sent Jay Hallen, a 24-year-old Yale poli-sci grad with no experience in finance or economics. To reconstruct the university system, it sent college president John Agresto, a former colleague of Lynne Cheney and William Bennett who knew almost nothing about Iraqi education. To repair the country’s ravaged hospital system, the White House sent James K. Haverman Jr., a Christian social worker whose background was in faith-based health care and whose first order of business was to launch a no-smoking campaign. The job of administering Iraq’s $3 billion budget went to six young conservatives with no financial experience who’d been recruited as gofers for Bremer. After a while, the entire reconstruction effort begins to seem like a comic book where a textbook was required.
A talented director, Greengrass has elevated handheld camera work to the jumpy, propulsive style that’s electrified not only the Bourne movies but dramatizations of important political events (Bloody Sunday, about the 1972 massacre of Irish protesters; United 93, about the passenger revolt aboard the ill-fated 9/11 flight). Green Zone is a game attempt to meld the two, and the synthesis works pretty well for a while. There’s a thrilling scene near the beginning in which U.S. chief warrant officer Roy Miller (Damon) and his team roll up to a Baghdad factory with orders to search for WMD and find chaos at the scene; the army squad sent to secure the site has been overrun by looters, who dash past the gates with everything they can carry. The WMD team is forced to make a daring run down an outdoor corridor with a sniper opening up on them from a window several floors above. Inside the factory, they don gas masks and creep through the darkness to find nothing. It’s the third time in a row they’ve discovered their intelligence reports to be wrong. (Be advised: we’re about to make a daring run into spoiler territory.)
When Miller complains about the intel at a subsequent debriefing, his superiors quickly shut him down. But he catches the ear of CIA officer Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson, wrestling with an American accent). Brown understands the importance of the Iraqi army in maintaining civil order, but this idea is brushed off by his political nemesis, Pentagon officer Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear, whose well-pressed demeanor is supposed to evoke Paul Bremer). Meanwhile Poundstone is being dogged by Wall Street Journal reporter Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), who’s published a series of stories about Saddam’s WMD program based on Poundstone’s classified source. These threads are all pulled tighter together when Miller, making another futile raid on a WMD site, stumbles onto information that leads him to Al Rawi (Igal Naor), a fictional top general under Saddam who may have been the secret source who led the U.S. into war.
No one could reasonably have expected Helgeland to turn Imperial Life in the Emerald City into an action thriller, but the farther Green Zone strays from fact into fiction, the more silly and generic it becomes. Lawrie Dayne is an obvious stand-in for Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter whose flimsily sourced stories helped sell the U.S. invasion to the public. (Moving her from the liberal Times to the conservative Journal is an indefensible partisan foul.) Miller’s primary sources were later revealed to be the discredited Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi and other members of his government-in-waiting, the Iraqi National Congress. Green Zone has a stand-in for Chalabi as well—a dapper politician called Ahmed Zubaidi—but makes no connection between him and Dayne. That would obviate the need for Damon to go rogue in a daring nighttime mission to bring in General Al-Rawi, presented here as “the one man” who can prevent Iraq from sliding into civil war.
Conservative writers have already pounced on the movie for inventing a dastardly plot to manufacture WMD intelligence. Kyle Smith, film critic for the New York Post, has called Green Zone “a $100 million slime job that conjures up a fantastically distorted leftist version of the war,” and Ross Douthat, writing in the Times, argues that the movie “refuses to stare real tragedy in the face, preferring the comforts of a ‘Bush lied, people died’ reductionism.” Given the Bush administration’s willingness to spin the available WMD intelligence, the creators of Green Zone could probably make a case that the movie is truthful if not factual. But when you’re trying to dispel a popular fiction, presenting an alternate fiction isn’t much help. Mr. Greengrass, will you please put that away? Class has started.