Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Green Zone Spin Zone

I saw the new Matt Damon movie Green Zone last Friday, the central theme of which is the hunt for WMDs in Iraq. My thought coming out of the movie was, "conservatives aren't going to be happy about this one."

Sure enough, Ross Douhat had a column in Monday's New York Times criticizing the movie:

Consider “Green Zone,” the new Matt Damon thriller that doubles as a meditation on Why We Are in Iraq... the film itself, a slam-bang account of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, has the same problem as nearly every other Hollywood gloss on recent political events: it refuses to stare real tragedy in the face, preferring the comforts of a “Bush lied, people died” reductionism.

The narrative of the Iraq invasion, properly told, resembles a story out of Shakespeare. You had a nation reeling from a terrorist attack and hungry for a response that would be righteous, bold and comprehensive. You had an inexperienced president trying to tackle a problem that his predecessors (one of them his own father) had left to fester since the first gulf war. You had a cause — the removal of a brutal dictator, and the spread of democracy to the Arab world — that inspired a swath of the liberal intelligentsia to play George Orwell and embrace the case for war. You had a casus belli — those weapons of mass destruction — that even many of the invasion’s opponents believed to be a real danger to world peace. And you had Saddam Hussein himself, the dictator in his labyrinth, apparently convinced that pretending to have W.M.D. was the best way to keep his grip on power.

But this opening act, and all the tragedies that followed, still awaits an artist capable of wrestling with its complexities. In “Green Zone,” everything is much simpler. “We” were lied to. “They” did the lying. The “we” is the audience, Matt Damon’s stoic soldier and the perpetually innocent American public. The “they” is the neoconservatives, embodied by a weaselly Greg Kinnear (playing some combination of Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Bremer and Douglas Feith) and capable of any enormity in the pursuit of their objectives...

It’s a lousy recipe for real art, which is supposed to be interested in the humanity of all its subjects, not just the ones who didn’t work for Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense... Our nation might be less divided, and our debates less poisonous, if more artists were capable of showing us the ironies, ambiguities and tragedies inherent in our politics — rather than comforting us with portraits of a world divided cleanly into good and evil.

Mr. Douhat, who David Bradley called an "extreme talent" when he worked at The Atlantic, has a much better grasp of the English language than of the facts. But I won't dwell on his gratuitous glossing over of the Iraq war as the tragic overreaction to 9/11 by well-intentioned politicians "reeling" from the disaster.

No, the real irony of Douhat's piece is that the thing he criticizes - the excessive division of the world into black/white, good/evil dichotomies - is exactly the sort of binary reasoning on which the Iraq war he now defends was sold. Indeed, that sort of simplistic thinking was the foundation of the entire Bush administration: small government vs. big government, high taxes vs. low taxes, good guys vs. bad guys, "you're with us or with the terrorists." Douhat ought to recognize the irony of defending the most simple-minded, binary-burdened administration in recent memory on the basis that its critics are overly-simplistic.

Of course I guess I shouldn't take issue with a prominent conservative for recognizing the world's complexities. For that is a rare and valuable species indeed.

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