Can Matt Damon's half-fiction set the benchmark for a popular history of the Iraq war?
Now is the moment for the Iraqi war film. Less than a week after the low-budget The Hurt Locker won Oscars for best picture and best director, Paul Greengrass's big-budget Green Zone has hit the screens. Following a series of Iraq war flops, the latest efforts show how the fictional Iraq has the potential to overshadow the reality.
Indeed, last week BBC News at Ten featured an interview with Matt Damon about his portrayal of Warrant Officer Miller, a soldier looking for WMDs in Iraq, while not reporting on a multiple bombing in Baghdad that killed more than 30 people.
It can be argued that such adrenaline-fueled dramatizations of the conflict distance people from any ability to understand actual events. And yet, effective film-making can unearth the guilt at the heart of the Iraq war in a way other mediums struggle to reach.
The film will be instantly criticized as Bourne in Baghdad. Yet that is not necessarily a bad thing as Miller, like Bourne, is an establishment figure whose moral compass won't tolerate the attempt by senior US administration figures to cover up the absence of WMDs; as he says: "I came here to find weapons and save lives."
While it takes a near-death experience and amnesia for Bourne to join the good guys, Miller is driven by the tragedy of realizing the he has been betrayed by sections of his own government. The film is a warning against putting too much trust in government decision-making. Director Greengrass spoke of his drive to make the film by explaining that "I genuinely believed Blair".
Yet the casting of a Hollywood A-lister as its hero is a reminder, if ever you needed it, that "the American soldier" can walk away from this war with his reputation intact, something that cannot be said to be true of the politicians and media. Indeed, despite the fictional conspiracy concept at its core, the film keeps regular connections with reality in the characters of WMD-duped US journalist Lawrie Dayne (representing the New York Times's Judith Miller) and the exiled Chalabi-type figure returning triumphantly to govern over a divided nation.
The film's premise strikes at the heart of the Iraq adventure: that the neocons in the US administration used a combination of cherry-picked intelligence and cooperative exile groups to topple Saddam's regime.
However, this is not a film solely about WMDs; it expands into investigating what triggered the descent into civil war and insurgency that followed the invasion. It traces the marginalization of the Sunni military elites from the building of the new Iraq by the process of de-Ba'athification and the disbanding of the security forces, announced proudly at a Green Zone press conference as "former regime elements" (FRE) watch on. Mark Urban's recent book, Task Force Black, revealed the role and independence of Special Forces operating against FREs - another aspect of the conflict that Green Zone manages to cram in.
Critics have already attacked Green Zone; Peter Bradshaw wrote that it lacked a "passionate flame", while Joe Queenan dismissed the film as a "cartoon" with a political context. This brushes over the writing that informed it. The film is "inspired" by the prize-winning book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but Greengrass was clear that the narrative surrounding the internal tussles within the US administration was a nod to the books by Bob Woodward and Ron Suskind. The strength of Chandresekaran's book was the ability to look in depth at life in the Green Zone bubble where "bars were stocked with cold beer" and a disco was filled with women in hot pants. Although Green Zone alludes to the surreal nature of the American occupation, the hectic pace of the movie prevents it slowing down to truly investigate.
Instead, what makes Green Zone effective as a mass vehicle for highlighting the insanity surrounding elements of the drive to war is that it can stand alone as a typically enjoyable Bourne film, complete with Greengrass's classic urban chase scenes and shaky hand-camera work. Powerful entertainment packs a bigger punch than the bureaucratic mundane process of the Chilcot inquiry.
Hollywood's portrayal of Iraq can be contrasted to a media whose credibility was severely tarnished by its inability to hold power to account on the road to war, and politicians whose lame attempts at inquiries into the conflict have still to draw true accountability into the mistakes made.
Ultimately what gives the film its credibility is that it avoids any simplistic idea that Iraq could have simply been "got right." Indeed Miller's vision of exposing the WMD conspiracy and the CIA's plan to keep the Iraq army is undermined by the film's wildcard -- a nationalist Shia war veteran who turns the plot on its head before delivering the killer line to the Americans when he tells them: "It's not up to you to determine what happens in this country."