Desert dreams drama

'Green Zone' strays far from the book on which it was based, but the author doesn't mind

March 12, 2010|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com | Sun Movie Critic

Green Zone," a political adventure movie from the "Bourne" franchise dream team of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, says that nation-building in Iraq has been a struggle partly because the United States based "regime change" on the spurious notion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

With Damon as an idealistic Army officer who wonders why he can't find any WMD and Greg Kinnear as a ruthless political operative in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the movie depicts the authority's futile attempts to speed the formation of a democratic Iraq as "fruit from the poisonous tree." As Greengrass told Film Comment magazine, "the WMD issue was the moment of our original sin."

Pick up the movie's sourcebook, Washington Post senior correspondent and associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran's "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" (2006), and you'll find next to nothing about WMD, no character like Damon's chief warrant officer and few vices that would call up the concept of original sin.

Chandrasekaran's idealists in Baghdad's Green Zone in 2003 and 2004 are white-collar right-wing ideologues with little real-world experience. More seasoned crusaders find their cautions swept aside in waves of forced official optimism.

You might think that when a movie strays from its source, the author would be miffed. It's quite the opposite with Chandrasekaran. If Greengrass feels America's adventure suffers from original sin, Chandrasekaran thinks Greengrass' movie benefits from core virtues.

Chandrasekaran says he's proud of the role he served in catalyzing an explosive motion picture that will grip audiences viscerally but also rouse their outrage or spark questions in their minds.

Chandrasekaran had seen Greengrass' "United 93" as well as his two "Bourne" movies before they met in 2006. The director was then up to his scalp in "The Bourne Ultimatum." But the author recognized he was not just a master of paranoid shoot-'em-ups.

Greengrass has said that the book "[unlocked] our stalled film" and remained "a beacon that guided us on our long journey." For Greengrass, Chandrasekaran brought home the gap between neoconservative theories hatched in Washington and London and the reality on the ground. It elucidated "the cost paid in blood and treasure ... for dreams of democracy in the desert."

Chandrasekaran always knew it would be "difficult to do a straight-up adaptation. My book would lend itself to a small-budget documentary or to a 'niche' production. Paul wanted to make a big feature film. I understood and appreciated that he and his screenwriter [Brian Helgeland] would have to come up with a story line that would draw from my material and other sources."

Chandrasekaran helped answer questions about life behind the walled CPA compound known as the Green Zone. "But I knew the story had entered areas not in my wheelhouse, like the search for WMD." The issue of whether the U.S. and British governments cooked the evidence for WMD might seem too slight a peg on which to hang everything Greengrass wants to say about the American-led coalition in Iraq. But Chandrasekaran says, "When Paul started this project, in 2004, it was the issue; even when I became involved, in late 2006, it was the issue." In Chandrasekaran's view, Greengrass' attempt to weave together WMD and "the mismanagement of Iraq in the early months" has resulted in a volatile and compelling piece of contemporary speculative fiction.

Chandrasekaran recalls a key conversation he had with Greengrass when he visited one of the film's location shoots in southern Spain. "Paul said there are multiple paths to the truth. Daily journalism is one. Nonfiction books are another. And a drama can be yet another."

The experience has been "surreal" for Chandrasekaran. Two weeks ago, he was in Marja, in Afghanistan's Helmand province, with U.S. Marines in the middle of a real shooting war, and he was on a red carpet in New York three days later, "watching a cinematic depiction of roughly the same thing." "Green Zone" compresses action and conflates issues. But it still, says Chandrasekaran, "blew me away."

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