January 17, 2007

The Situation

Directed by Philip Haas

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Last year, United 93 and World Trade Center had people buzzing about whether it was too soon to put out 9/11-themed films. Appropriately arriving nearly one year later, Philip Haas’ new film about the war in Iraq raises the same question. While the two films on 9/11 met with overwhelmingly positive critical reception, the arrival of The Situation seems premature. But political sensitivity has nothing to do with it this time. The film simply feels like a series of misfires and blown opportunities.

American journalist Anna (Connie Nielsen) is in Samarra investigating the death of Rafeeq (Nasser Memarzia), a prominent community figure whom she had recently profiled. Insurgence leader Walid (Driss Roukh) had been upset about Rafeeq’s dealings with Americans like Anna. The Americans suspected that Rafeeq was a terrorist due to his association with Walid. To complicate things further, an Iraqi policeman’s marriage proposal to Rafeeq’s daughter Noor (Cherine Amar) met with her father’s disapproval and interference. Meanwhile Anna is also juggling two romantic relationships, respectively with American intel officer Dan (Damian Lewis) and Iraqi freelance photographer Zaid (Mido Hamada).

“There are no bad guys and there are no good guys. It’s not grey, either,” Dan says. “It’s just the truth shifts according to each person you talk to.” That would have been a nice theme for the film, but The Situation never manages to achieve half of that moral complexity. In spite of its 16 speaking parts, one third of the dialogue being in Arabic, and an interwoven story with characters from drastically different backgrounds, the movie quickly pales by comparison to such intricate films as Syriana and Babel.

The vast majority of problems with The Situation come from an amateurish screenplay by journalist Wendell Steavenson. The story sticks with the perspective of her surrogate/alterego Anna, whose love triangle seems trivial and tedious while the viewers aren’t all that invested in characters getting brutalized or murdered either. Scenes in the film, many taking place in restaurants and sidewalk cafes, are filled with wall-to-wall dialogue. The wooden delivery by the non-English speaking cast also makes everything sound like conversational exercises from an ESL class. The gratuitous sex scene involving Nielsen and Lewis accompanied by machine gun and bomb noises is borderline laughable. All these do little to establish the urgency of the war.

Nothing else here really manages to bail out the screenplay. What journalist in her right mind would walk around Iraq in a sexy summer dress as Nielsen does? The sound is badly mixed, with an intrusive score that makes the film sound like a TV movie. Haas also doesn’t seem like the right man for the job. The Situation might have been quite something in the hands of someone like Michael Winterbottom, who has impressively delved into this territory before with Welcome to Sarajevo, In This World and The Road to Guantanamo.

The Situation has some interesting tidbits, but nothing capable of sustaining a moment, let alone an entire film. Haas has said that he was compelled to put the film together quickly while the Iraq war is still going on. But the sort of points he’s attempting to make have been made more eloquently and convincingly elsewhere. Even if one considers the film timely and relevant, it is ultimately forgettable. It definitely leaves the impression that Haas should have waited a while, perhaps for a couple of rewrites at the very least, before proceeding with this project.

Reprinted from EmanuelLevy.com. © Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.