The Reeler


February 2, 2007

The Situation

Tangled Iraqi drama may have happened too soon for the filmmakers, not the audience

Connie Nielsen as this year's International Conflict Barbie in The Situation (Photo: Shadow Distribution)

Wendell Steavenson based her screenplay for The Situation on her experiences as a journalist in Iraq, and while her aim as a reporter is presumably true, her background does the plot -- notwithstanding her firsthand knowledge of the subject -- no favors. Seemingly beholden to a journalistic structure (all those embarrassing almost-words come to mind: lede, nut graf, kicker) that is laid a little too bare on the screen, the film plays -- it reads, I should say -- as though it were the kind of glossy magazine feature her heroine writes for a living. The basic framework is bare, and yet so bold that it stands apart from the story itself, which sags and tangles, like a sprawling canopy with too few poles. Add to this some pseudo-hard-boiled dialogue that threatens to leave Iraq behind for Top Secret! territory ("It's the situation." "I know, everything is the situation."), and director Philip Haas begins to look as bewildered as each of his characters in facing the complexities of… the situation.

You want better for this film, one of few fiction features amid a host of documentaries struggling to tell the stories coming out of Iraq, but the discomfort it causes is not a matter of it being too soon for the audience, but rather, it seems, for the filmmakers. Haas has remarked that he was compelled to make this film -- a departure from his previous adaptations of Up at the Villa and Angels & Insects -- by the lack of penetrating coverage of the war; in narrative he felt he could offer some emotional traction to a people who find themselves falling off of the daily front page column and turning the page. Using the figure of journalist Anna Molyneux (an International Conflict Barbie in the mold, most recently, of Jennifer Connelly in Blood Diamond) as an entry point for an Iraq film, however, tears open a black hole of credibility that puts the film 10 paces behind before the starting shot is fired. Connie Neilsen's absurd bleach-and-extensions job had my eyes sliding off the screen, anyway, and even she seems to move through the part in muted, stilted objection: You want me to say that? With this hair?

But fine, the film opens with a war crime, as two Iraqi boys are stopped at an American checkpoint in Samarra and one dies after both are randomly tossed off of a bridge. The death attracts the attention of Anna, who shows up at the funeral sniffing around for a story along with Rafeeq (Nasser Memarzia) -- one of her sources -- and Bashar (Omar Berdouni), her translator as well as the son of an Iraqi diplomat who will figure in later. Back in Baghdad's Green Zone (The Situation is filled with topical references to Abu Ghraib, Al Jazeera and insurgency factions) is Anna's boyfriend Dan (Damian Lewis), an intelligence officer struggling against the futility of such a position in the middle of such a war; he is also asked to broker deals with people like Duraid (Mahmoud El Lozy), the diplomat trying to trade some inside information for a ticket to Australia. Shot in Morocco, the look of the film is authentically, endlessly bleak; the dust never settles, and the blinding, bloodless sunshine is almost a mockery of itself.

Anna grows closer to her Iraqi photographer, Zaid (Mido Hamada) -- meets the family and everything -- but is unable to invest in the situation as anything more than a journalist searching for a story until it is somehow about her. When tragedy strikes ("It's all my fault!"), the film moves into a kidnapping drama, with the Americans, the Iraqis and the insurgents scrambling to intercept an arms shipment, then moving in to rescue the hapless blonde. Anna suffers the requisite journalist's remorse when she gets the story she’s been wishing for, and dispenses what looks regrettably like the American kiss of death on her Iraqi paramour. Sorry about all the confusion! Just trying to help!

There are a lot of platitudes and plunky exchanges littering the mangled intersections along the way to that forcibly emotional climax, but one moment sang out with piercing clarity: In discussing whether they were better off with or without Saddam, two Iraqis admit that it was simply impossible to imagine a situation worse than Saddam, though they now know better. It reminded me of the closing passage of Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, in which she looks back with rue on the comfort she tried to manufacture for herself after the 2000 election: It won’t be so bad, she reasoned, environmental policy will go on hiatus and taxes will go up, but it's only four years. Vowell describes this now as a failure of imagination, a failure to fathom just how bad it could possibly get. At last, some common ground.

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