Americans believe in evil, but we’re uncomfortable with tragedy. We accept that there are wicked people in the world, with malice in their hearts and a devil whispering in their ears. But the idea that many debacles flow from choices made by decent, well-intentioned human beings is more difficult for us to wrap our minds around.
This is apparent in our politics, where we’re swift to impute the worst of motives to anyone slightly to our left or right. It’s apparent in our popular culture, thick with white hats and black hats, superheroes and supervillains. But it’s most egregious where the two spheres intersect: in our political fictions, which are nearly always Manichaean, simplistic and naïve.
Ordinarily Douthat would be the first to embrace a Manichaean, simplistic, naive view of mankind, Biblical-based and utterly scornful of ambiguity. He would be the first to say that evil and good exist, and humanity is locked in an eternal struggle between the two. While complaining about the supposed pantheism of Avatar, Douthat said:
[...P]antheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.
He was for good and evil before he was against it. Now he is on the wrong side of the divide, however, and we are told that the evil guy in the black hat really isn't so bad after all, he's really a decent guy who just happened to make a mistake out of good intentions.
But 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.
No, the tragedy is not that our elite lied, bullied, and self-deceived us into war. It's not the hundreds of thousands dead, the million sent fleeing for their lives, the children starved, killed, traumatized. It's not the destruction of a country. It's not the thousands of American dead, limbs blown off, children orphaned. The tragedy is that the elite can't fantasize that they are the heroes in the fictional version of reality that is constantly screening in their heads.
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.
Fantasies. Lies told and retold until they have the false ring of truth. Self-soothing masturbation, to silence the voice of conscience that demands to be acknowledged but is constantly, compulsively ignored. The actual facts tell a different, less reassuring story, and are all but forgotten. The elite rewrites the story, recasting themselves as heroes or harmless dupes and complaining when everyone else won't play pretend as well.
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.
How does our elite assess their failures of judgement and reason, empathy and logic? They cry that they are being victimized. They don't try to understand why they failed. They don't reassess the basis for their decision-making. They don't examine their biases and prejudices. They don't read and discuss dissenting opinions. They don't re-examine the facts and pin-point where they misinterpreted the data. They complain and whine and play the victim card. Nobody likes them and everyone thinks they're bad when they're really the good guys because they meant well, cross their hearts and hope someone else dies.
Such glib scapegoating looks particularly lame in the wake of last week’s Oscar triumph for “The Hurt Locker,” the first major movie to paint the Iraq War in shades of gray. But “The Hurt Locker,” of course, was largely apolitical. Throw politics into the mix, and there seems to be no escaping the clichés and simplifications that mar Greengrass’s movie — and Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs,” Oliver Stone’s “W.” and all the other attempts to bring the Bush era to cinematic life.
This isn’t just a Hollywood problem. Explaining “Why Americans Can’t Write Political Fiction” in a 2005 essay for the Washington Monthly, Chris Lehmann noted the long-running tendency in American letters to depict politics as the preserve of debased cynics and moral monsters. From Mark Twain’s “Gilded Age” and Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” to their more recent imitators, our novelists have never been terribly interested in the actual challenges of political life. Instead, Lehmann suggested, they usually cast the entire mess as “a great ethical contaminant and task their protagonists with escaping its many perils with both their lives and their moral compasses intact.”
As it happens, this is a pretty good description of the arc of “Green Zone.” But 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.
Such radical sympathy, extended even to people who presided over grave disasters, is in short supply all across America at the moment. And Hollywood’s inability to handle political complexity plays only a small part in our ongoing polarization.
It's not that the elite was wrong. It's Hollywood that is wrong, for not understanding the goodness in the heart of the elite, who are tasked with the difficult responsibility of making decisions for everyone else. Naturally they will sometimes fail, but failure points the way to success, and how are the elite to succeed if everyone keeps pointing out their failures?