Let’s just get the nod to its good intentions out of the way from the start: Providing a window onto the U.S.-occupied chaos of Iraq – this country’s first narrative film to do so – “The Situation” strives mightily to put a human face on Iraqis forgotten by mainstream media reports and documentaries (save the superlative “Iraq in Fragments“), which tend to focus almost exclusively on the American experience. That it attempts to achieve this through condescension, by using a Caucasian character as an entry point to accepting the Other – well, besides the basic knee-jerk response (so what’s new? see Matthew Broderick in “Glory,” Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves,” Tom Cruise in “The Last Samurai” . . .) – one takes small comfort from the fact that this telling derives from a female perspective.
Directed by Philip Haas and boasting a street-cred script by real-life journalist Wendell Steavenson loosely based on her experiences, “The Situation” frames itself as a triangular love story rather than a straight generic contribution to the cause. Connie Nielsen (who did subtler work in the superior but little-seen Danish war film “Brothers“) takes the lead as Anna, investigating one last story, the assassination of an Iraqi leader who’d been a personal acquaintance, before she leaves the country. Maintaining a relationship with an obtuse American intelligence official, Dan (Damian Lewis), but increasingly enticed by Iraqi photojournalist Zaid (Mido Hamada), her interactions with the men are meant to microcosmically illuminate the intricate politics at play.
Chief problem with “The Situation” is its defensive timidity. Understandably seeking to handle its subject matter with sensitivity, it walks on eggshells-so careful not to offend, it doesn’t allow for the painful palpating necessary – and wastes time simplistically preempting criticism that might come from the right or left. So we need to endure protracted expository moments where, for instance, Anna discusses having initially supported the war because she couldn’t imagine anything worse than Saddam Hussein. No dialogue is spoken without being meaningfully underlined, and every scenario has the inorganic, explanatory feel of an Iraq War for Dummies guide. Though notable for its early attempt to sift through the mess even as Bush calls for more troops, the film’s overly solicitous manner surely stems from this same lack of historical distance. War movies made in the past were dealing with scar tissue; the wounds here remain agonizingly fresh – an even better argument for “The Situation” to buck up and be bold where it instead shrinks into a corner.
The only scene that begins to come close to expressing the complexity of the situation occurs when Anna goes missing and Dan interrogates Zaid. Dan presumes him to be a terrorist involved in the kidnapping plot, and his vituperative accusations are naturally met with bitter resistance from the blameless detainee, which only spurs on the officer’s suspicions. The circular distrust portrayed in these few heated, escalating minutes say more than the rest of the movie manages with numerous boldface moments. From the pointless death by American hands of a 16-year-old Iraqi which kicks the film off to the ridiculous futility of the final shoot-out, “The Situation,” finally, ruefully raises the obvious question: What the fuck are we doing over there?
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]