Purportedly the first feature film to deal directly with the Iraqi war, Philip Haas’ (“Angels and Insects”) “The Situation” is an uncompromising exercise in realpolitik. Though presented as an “Under Fire”-type triangular love story of a femme reporter in a Third World hot spot, the romantic plot serves mainly as a throughline to negotiate the tangle of diverse factions making up the mined landscape of the occupied country. Skedded for release in February, Hamptons’ opening night film is undeniably topical but the lack of emotional investment in its characters renders it more intelligent than engaging.
Haas ambitiously tackles both the complexity of the Iraqi unrest and the oversimplification of the American response, opening his film on two fronts: an Iraqi patrol, speaking Arabic, speculates about what the Americans are doing, while, a few hundred yards away, a unit of American GIs throws two Iraqi boys off a bridge, one of whom drowns. Pic constantly ping-pongs between the two totally disparate U.S. and Arab perspectives.
Anna (Connie Nielsen), a blond, burka-enveloped American journalist has a man in both camps: sometime lover Dan (Damian Lewis) in the CIA and good-looking young Iraqi photographer-colleague Zaid (Mido Hamada) repping the other side.
Yet the two men are hardly typical of their respective cultures — Dan is fighting a losing battle for long-term investment in the country’s infrastructure and urges cooperation with moderate Iraqis, while Zaid dreams of leaving for colder climes, his state-of-the-art camera and mod shoes already raising eyebrows.
Script, by journalist Wendell Steavenson and based on her own experiences in the region, rarely follows the expected genre formulae. Not only is the romantic triangle laid out rather loosely, but even the “big story” of the drowned boy and its attendant cover-up (potentially shocking in 2003 when pic was conceived but relatively mild now) functions neither as a triumphant search for justice nor as cynical proof of its absence. Instead, it is absorbed into a whirlpool of misdeeds, misunderstandings and conflicted loyalties.
Despite an occasional tendency to awkwardly drop chunks of exposition and historical background material into the middle of dinner table conversations and CIA briefings, Haas’ forte is to dynamically convey the impromptu interdependencies and marriages of convenience which have sprung up in the absence of any viable governing structure in Iraq.
The Americans wind up in bed with the same kind of strongmen, thieves and opportunists who formerly found employment with Saddam Hussein. While the local sheik rushes to accommodate the new U.S. muscle in town, and every out-of-work thug with a connected relative scrambles to join the police force, decent moderates are fired upon from all directions, and resisting patriots form unforeseen alliances.
Unfortunately, the tepidness of the central love triangle vitiates the film’s political impact. Nielsen embodies the intrepid reporter with utter conviction, but at the expense of her vulnerability as a compassionate, conflicted woman in love with two men.
Shot on a low budget with Morocco subbing for Iraq, pic uses its limited resources well, capturing a sense of immediacy and entrenching itself in a specific topography that reveals the characters’ integration with and/or alienation from the landscape.