Separating fact from fiction in Iraq war films

Familiarity is not necessarily the friend of the Iraq moviegoer.

As The Times’ foreign editor from 2002-08, I visited Baghdad before and after the U.S. invasion, then followed the occupation and sectarian war for nearly six years. In short, I am a journalist and I know the story. So while I understand that filmmakers marry truth to fiction, and that “Green Zone,” “The Ghost Writer” and “The Hurt Locker” are entertainment above all, I can’t help but worry that cinema’s altered reality will be taken as fact, which it most certainly is not. I instinctively scrutinize the films for accuracy, enjoying a sense of deja vu in the moments they get right, and cringing at the distortions when they don’t.

“Green Zone” and “The Hurt Locker” capture the dusty, disorienting landscape of Baghdad, with its maze of alleys and garbage-strewn streets, where every piece of trash potentially hides a bomb and every man with a cellphone is a potential bomber.

In this hostile territory, shelled apartment buildings become snipers’ nests, traffic jams an opportunity for ambush. When the main character in “The Hurt Locker,” Sgt. First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner, goes off base to wander the nighttime streets of Baghdad alone and makes it back alive, I know that is far-fetched fiction. But I also can appreciate the film’s acute depiction of how young men who witness horrible things try to hold on to their sanity, how some lose it while others grow addicted to the adrenaline of war and return for more. They’re a lot like war correspondents. (The author of “The Hurt Locker” script, Mark Boal, was a correspondent embedded with a bomb disposal unit.)


“The Ghost Writer” and “Green Zone” raise many of the right questions about how and why we went to war in Iraq, but then fall short in trying to answer them. (A note of caution here: Major plot points are about to be disclosed.)

Certainly British Prime Minister Tony Blair was an uncritical ally of President George W. Bush, a “poodle” to critics at home. But the Blair-like character in “The Ghost Writer,” former Prime Minister Adam Lang, is depicted as a tool of the CIA. That’s too facile for me. Blair was a committed ally and, for better or worse, should be remembered as one.

“The Ghost Writer,” screenplay by Robert Harris and director Roman Polanski, based on Harris’ novel, posits that Lang deserves trial in an international court for war crimes associated with torture. As it happened, the film came out as Blair was defending himself before an official parliamentary inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war. As Blair defended his decisions, relatives of fallen British soldiers were so angered that one shouted, “You are a murderer.” Such fresh pain makes the assassination of the Lang character in “The Ghost Writer” not only credible but creepy -- a little too real for comfort.

The “Green Zone” plot turns on the futile search for weapons of mass destruction in post-invasion Iraq by an Army chief warrant officer played by Matt Damon, and his determination to dig out the story behind the false intelligence. In Brian Helgeland’s script, Damon discovers not just bungling and self-deception, but conspiracy.

In the real-life run-up to the war, the Bush administration cited aluminum tube imports, supposed purchases of nuclear material from Niger and pictures of alleged mobile germ laboratories as proof that Saddam Hussein still had a WMD program. We went to war, of course, and then learned that the tubes were for conventional weapons, the Niger documents were forgeries and the mobile units were for producing hydrogen for weather balloons.

In “Green Zone,” this leads to the conclusion that the Bush administration knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and deliberately lied to the country. At least as likely is that the administration’s neo-conservatives accepted the “intelligence” that fit what they wanted to believe and fooled themselves about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons program.

Particularly galling to a journalist is the film’s treatment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose pre-war stories based on American officials and intelligence experts asserted that Iraq had stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons, and after the invasion reported that building blocks of WMD had been found in Iraq. The Times later acknowledged poor sourcing and heavy reliance on information supplied by Iraqi exiles seeking regime change, but Miller was unrepentant. The film, unfortunately, converts her into a Wall Street Journal correspondent who sees the error of her ways, thereby seeming to let both Miller and the Times off the historical hook.

“Green Zone” was inspired by the nonfiction book by former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.” Like the book, the movie suitably conveys the cocoon-like atmosphere of the Green Zone, isolated from Iraqi reality beyond its blast walls and filled with inexperienced, ambitious neo-cons. In the film, they’re working poolside or cheering Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech in the cafeteria, while Damon searches for WMD and tries to navigate between ideologues disbanding Hussein’s Baathist military, and CIA agents who understand that’s the only institution that can prevent civil war. (Interesting to see Hollywood play CIA agents as the good guys.)


To watch “Green Zone” is to remember the Bush administration also told us that Americans would be greeted by Iraqis as liberators and that toppling Hussein would set off a chain reaction throughout the region -- a domino democracy. That’s not what happened either, of course, and maybe that’s why Americans haven’t been breaking down theater doors to see these movies.

The films serve as an uncomfortable reminder of our gullibility, or fallibility. Even Damon’s character, while skilled and heroic, comes across as a naive American.

“Green Zone” gets it right in the end, though, when Damon’s Iraqi translator takes matters into his own hands, leaving the American frustrated and confused. “You don’t get to decide what happens here,” the translator says. “It’s our country.”

Now that is the truth.


Miller is now a Times editorial writer.