The Situation is a beautifully written and realized behind-the-scenes story aiming to make some sense of all the violence and chaos in Iraq today. It bravely takes no sides but arduously presents the conflicting agendas driving the war. By virtue of its subject, the film won't be an easy sell. But thinking viewers who do the tour won't be disappointed.
With this satisfying war drama, director Philip Haas (The Music of Chance, Up at the Villa, Angels & Insects) makes a hairpin turn away from previous arty and rarified work. It's a daring embrace of a chaotic, bloody, inscrutable, volatile and frustrating "situation" that actually brings some clarification.
Described by its makers as the first fiction feature to deal with the current Iraq war, The Situation is an equal-opportunity canvas giving as much time to various U.S. perspectives as it does to the multi-faceted Arab experience there.
The fine script comes from international journalist and first-time screenwriter Wendell Steavenson. The temptation is to credit much of the film's balance and analysis to the fact that the writer is British and female. As depicted here, the war is no mere palette of black and white and good guys vs. bad guys. While the ubiquitous violence that characterizes the war would be fodder for lesser screenwriters, Steavenson is more interested in the human motives and failings behind the violence.
The film begins with a tragic incident in Samarra that has some American troops, on duty to enforce curfews, bullying a couple of Arab youngsters and throwing them into a river where one drowns. American journalist Anna (Connie Nielsen), with her young translator Bashar (Omar Berdouni), travels from Baghdad to investigate, beginning with a visit to trusted source Rafeeq (Nasser Memarzia). He and Anna have a bond, but Rafeeq, a seeming moderate, may also have allegiances elsewhere. One ally might be the town's sheikh Tahsin (Said Amadis), a kind of mayor who loves his power and rewards those who assure it. Rafeeq also stands apart from hardliner Walid (Driss Roukh), a local resistance leader who wants Rafeeq on his side.
Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, Anna's current lover Dan (Damian Lewis), a cynical CIA man, espouses a policy of forging alliances with moderate or uncommitted Arabs like Rafeeq. He is as out of touch with the real pulse of the place as Anna is in the thick of things. And her investigation takes her deeper and deeper into splintered Arab society and the many competing factions.
Thanks to Rafeeq, Anna meets the surviving youth and learns what the soldiers did. She grows close to Zaid (Mido Hamada), her Christian Iraqi photographer, and his family. And when Rafeeq is assassinated, Anna becomes immersed in his murder, which may or may not have to do with his friendship with her. But there is also the possibility that the crime was a community matter relating to his daughter's imminent engagement. Anna's investigation of Rafeeq's death brings her to Walid, who takes both Anna and translator Bashar captive.
In Baghdad, Dan strikes a deal with Bashar's father Duraid (Mahmoud El Lozy), a crafty diplomat who begs for more arms and assures Dan good information if the intelligence guy can get him assigned to Australia. Other Americans on the scene include Colonel Carrick (John Slattery), a single-minded military man, and Wesley (Shaun Evans), a bow-tied, gung-ho intelligence newbie know-it-all who knows nothing.
Once Dan learns that Anna is being held, he sends Zaid to negotiate her release. Also arrived are American troops who launch an attack. All hell breaks loose as a thick metaphorical fog of war and collateral damage roll in and over. Once the literal dust has settled and the tragedies are realized, one can almost hear a character explaining, a la Chinatown, "Get over it, Jake. It's only Iraq!"
While Nielsen has star billing, The Situation, like the war it depicts, depends on an ensemble of diverse players. All actors, Arab and Westerners, are perfectly cast. (And it's great to see terrific Arab roles and performances that are situated outside airplane cabins.)
Shot in Morocco, a well-suited stand-in for Iraq, The Situation is a handsome production, with its modest budget up there on the screen. The handheld camerawork never calls attention to itself and all settings--whether interior or exterior--ring authentic.
One quibble might be that Nielsen, until the very end, is just too glam and carefully made-up to look like a journo in the midst of so much turmoil, but otherwise the theatre of war is convincing.
Giving some sense to a senseless situation, Haas' film does demand our attention, and a second go-round will help viewers sort out the different characters and factions and their blurry motives and agendas. And it's not difficult to extrapolate from what is presented that, for America, the only way out is out.