05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Green Zone : When Right vs. Wrong Becomes "Liberal Propaganda"

Last Friday saw the long-delayed opening of Paul Greengrass's Iraq-war thriller The Green Zone. Why it did not open this Friday, which is the seventh anniversary of the start of the Iraq campaign, I do not know. As expected, Paul Greengrass uses his Bourne-tricks to craft a thrill-infused version of just what went down during the earliest days of 'Operation Iraqi Freedom'. For those who want the same discourse without the somewhat generic thriller elements, just rent the fantastic documentary No End In Sight, which deals (as objectively as possible) with the hopelessly bungled occupation which led to the protracted post-invasion conflict. Or, if you've got five hours to kill, rent the PBS/Frontline documentary Bush's War.

But is The Green Zone a true liberal screed? Not really. Like a lot of recent films that are tagged as liberal, the film deals with moral absolutes and is tagged as left-wing by those who would disagree with the scenarios at play. When it comes to normal fiction entertainments, mainstream movie-making is relatively apolitical. Conservative commentators love to claim for their own various films (Groundhog Day, The Incredibles, A Simple Plan, etc) that merely espouse mainstream values of good vs. evil, self-defense, family loyalty, monogamous relationships, and personal responsibility, as if liberals actively oppose these bedrock tenants of our current society. Ironically, many of those 'American values' derived from the character of Superman, who started his days as a pro-FDR, pro-press muckraker who was in favor of joining the war in Europe and regulating business when many on the political right were opposed.

Many conservative pundits also presume that just because characters in a film act in a way with (Knocked Up) or against (Million Dollar Baby) their values means that the film and the filmmakers are firmly on the side of their characters. Just because Juno decided against having an abortion does not mean that Jason Reitman and/or Diablo Cody are anti-choice. While there are certain mainstream entertainments that could be classified as solidly conservative (Phone Booth, Bad Boys 2, The Devil's Advocate, or The Eighth Day), most mainstream entertainments are just about characters making life choices and moral decisions ignorant or uncaring about which side of the political spectrum those choices might fall under at a given time.

And we liberals love to claim for our own films like Avatar. Sure the picture may contain swipes at the Iraq war and its propaganda and the film is certainly liberal when it comes to environmental concerns. But at least where it concerns issues of war and peace, the James Cameron opus merely states that land-theft and murder is not a nice way to operate, and that an indigenous populace has the right to fight back against aggressors. Do mainstream conservatives really want to claim that being anti-genocide is somehow left-wing? Most movies classified as 'liberal' are thrillers that deal with faceless corporations using their unchecked power to engage in various sorts of skulduggery (think The Constant Gardener, State of Play, or Edge of Darkness). Sure, the GOP has allowed themselves to get tagged as the party of corporations, but aren't these movies merely stating, as a hard moral bedrock of free enterprise, that giant corporations shouldn't kill people or commit treason as a matter of public policy? At what point did 'business shouldn't poison/murder people' become a left-wing idea?

Remember ten years ago, when it was the liberals who were being tagged as the party of 'oh, there's an excuse/mitigating circumstance for everything' and the conservatives who preached hard morality and the rule of law regardless of circumstance? I'd argue that one of the unfortunate effects of post-9/11 discourse is to render seemingly mainstream views regarding a whole host of issues, such as torture (no), preemptive invasion (no), the rule of law and due process (yes), and constitutional rights (yes) into amoral gray zones for political discourse. Of course, that's what The Dark Knight is really about, which is why it hit such a nerve in audiences of all political stripes (it was certainly no neocon fantasy). Believing in 'the right thing' is meaningless if you don't stick to those principles in times of great strife, which used to be a pretty mainstream philosophy.

On the surface, the fact that we are discussing a movie like The Green Zone as left-wing at all is a little disconcerting. The film surprisingly goes out of its way to avoid partisan name-calling, as the film basically faults a single fictional corrupt Bush administration official (played by Greg Kinnear) with using a single overeager reporter ('not Judith Miller', played by Amy Ryan) in order to sell the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. For those so politically-inclined, this is the biggest problem with the picture as it basically lets the Bush administration, the mainstream media, and the American public off the hook by holding up mustache-twirling figureheads as the culprits (the finale also fatally plunges the picture into wish-fulfillment fantasy). In the end, The Green Zone simply argues that the people who lie and deceive a populace into waging war against a nation under false pretenses are the bad guys. And the people who fail to adequately plan for various contingencies associated with that war, a failure that results in years of protracted slaughter and loss of national blood and treasure, should not be commended. It was wrong when Lyndon B. Johnson did it and it was wrong when George W. Bush did it. The fact that such an opinion is now viewed as a politically partisan one and movies that espouse it are considered liberal screeds is a troubling sign of how far down the rabbit hole we've plunged since the second week in September of 2001.

Scott Mendelson