Situation No Win
by J. Hoberman, Village Voice, January 30, 2007
Dealing head-on with Bush’s War, Samarra-set political thriller dissects Iraqi unrest and nails the neocons
The Situation, Philip Haas’s deftly paced, well-written, and brilliantly infuriating Iraq War thriller is not only the strongest of recent geopolitical hotspot flicks but one that has been designed for maximal agitation. Based on a script by the Anglo-American journalist Wendell Steavenson, this gutsy attempt to dramatize the way Iraqis live now is an incitement to rage and despair—the most vivid critique of Bush’s War yet put on screen.
An independent production, The Situation was frugally shot (to excellent effect) in and around Rabat, Morocco, with a largely Arab cast and one mid-level inter national star: Connie Nielsen, who plays the American correspondent Anna. Nominally a romantic triangle—Anna is casually involved with a friendly intelligence officer yet increasingly drawn to her Iraqi photographer—the movie is as bluntly existential as its title. It’s structured as an interlocking series of mysteries inside one very large and intractable brain-twister. What in the world are we doing (or do we think we’re doing) in this incomprehensible landscape and how in the world are we ever going to get out?
Haas opens by restaging an actual incident that occurred in the mainly Sunni city of Samarra in early 2004: A group of American soldiers detained a pair of teenage Iraqis out after curfew and wound up throwing them into the Tigris, drowning one. Although the case, which Anna reports on, only intermittently surfaces in The Situation’s narrative, its sink-or-swim horror sets the movie’s tone and provides an ongoing metaphor. Iraq itself is a morass of moral equivalence; watching the various characters flounder in its treacherous currents, the spectator, too, may be overwhelmed by emotional turmoil.
The death of a hapless innocent is but one atrocious incident among all manner of abductions, bombings, raids, arrests, murders, and random brutality. Furious, uptight American occupiers contend with conspiratorial, inscrutable Iraqis—any of whom may be regarded or revealed as a potential terrorist—and the Iraqis must also contend with each other. “Civil war” is too clear-cut a term. One of the movie’s points is that there’s no word for Iraq’s state of being: “It’s the situation.”
Initially didactic, Haas and Steavenson take pains to establish the territory’s nonexistent ground rules. Given the absence of civil society and the bewildering nexus of tribal, religious, and geographic ties, petty warlords or neighborhood godfathers command more loyalty than any political entity. The cops are ex-criminals; the insurgents are gangbangers. Fear is a constant; the desire for protection trumps all. Moreover, everyone has a history: The photojournalist Zaid (Egypt-born, Germany-raised Mido Hamada) comes from a Christian family; Saddam Hussein executed his parents because they were Communists. And everyone has their reasons: A smooth ex-Baathist diplomat (Egyptian theater professor Mahmoud El Lozy) helps the Americans because he’s desperate to get out of the country and won’t ask the Kurds, who now run the ministry, for a job.
The Iraqis are a diverse lot; the Americans, who can’t agree on the most basic principles, are closer to parody: “I’m a soldier, give me some shit to blow up,” one cartoonish officer pleads. The Army is benign compared to the civilian leadership. Haas and Steavenson nail the imperial ineptitude of the neocon know-it-alls who theorized (and continue to theorize) this war in blissful ignorance of the facts. A bow-tied Tucker Carlson type, newly arrived on the scene, suffers a friendly Iraqi official’s attempt to provide some minimal guidance before cutting him off: “I have a master’s in Oriental Studies.” “Oh, is this the Orient?” the Iraqi politely replies.
The big picture is that there is no big picture. Hence the double-edged meaning to the CIA station chief’s complaint, “We need better intel” (delivered beneath an outsize portrait of his commander in chief in full “What, me worry?” mode). Anna’s pal and sometime lover Dan (Damian Lewis) is identified as the best of the Americans because he’s able to use the phrase “hearts and minds” without irony. Trust is almost impossible to establish and vanishes in an instant. Investigations are never concluded. The truth, if it is the truth, turns out to be worse—and more idiotic—than we ever imagined.
The Situation, which is concerned mainly with the fate of ex-Baathists and Sunni insurgents, is seemingly set in 2004 (when Steavenson was a correspondent in Iraq for Slate). If anything, the current situation, with the full flowering of Shiite militia, is worse: We will soon mark the first anniversary of the Sunni bombing of Samarra’s golden-domed al-Askari Mosque, the trigger for widespread Shiite rioting and reprisal killings, which is to say the ongoing cycle of sectarian violence.
That incident aside, there’s a poetic logic to setting the movie largely in Samarra. John O’Hara’s novel Appointment in Samarra may have nothing whatsoever to do with Iraq but it has everything to do with self-destruction—the title is taken from the fable of a man who flees from death in Baghdad to discover that he was fated to meet his end in the town where he sought refuge. We’re all condemned to live with the consequences of Bush’s war. The Situation makes apparent how pitifully unintended and irrevocable those consequences are.
Iraq has been the subject of several key documentaries: Each in its way, The Control Room, Gunner Palace, and Iraq in Fragments are crucial to the representation of the war. The Situation is the first fictional film of note to treat the conflict, and as such, it is filled with echoes of Vietnam (and Vietnam-era) movies. Haas’s Baghdad certainly doesn’t look like Saigon but it has a sickeningly familiar feel. The Green Zone’s swimming pools and Chinese restaurants recall the lavish pseudo-America of Apocalypse Now. (Indeed, Steavenson’s knowingly noirish first-person reportage owes a bit to Michael Herr.) Anna’s gravity seems a subliminal evocation of the concerned expression Jane Fonda adopted in the North Vietnamese photograph Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin had so much fun analyzing in Letter to Jane. And like the saintly Willem Dafoe character in Platoon, Anna initially supports the war, but not now.
Anna, who only nominally reports, is more of a private eye. She becomes emotionally invested when one of her sources is killed, and is amazed when (paraphrasing a line from Chinatown) Dan tells her to forget it, “It’s just Iraq.” With blindingly blond hair often concealed by a headscarf, Anna functions as a beacon in the fog of war—less because of what she knows than what she is. If the lean, willowy Nielsen is distractingly beautiful, this is perhaps intentional. Haas, after all, is a cultivated man. He began as a maker of documentaries on artists and graduated to self-consciously rarefied, upper-middlebrow literary projects—fastidiously adapting the likes of Paul Auster, A.S. Byatt, and John Hawkes. (It hardly seems coincidental that he initially encountered Steavenson’s war reporting in Granta.)
Haas has never shied away from symbolism, and where the versatile Nielsen is nearly convincing as Anna, she’s sensational as the embodiment of an abstract idea. The movie’s final moments make clear that this golden woman is the meaning of the war—the hope that the American invasion released from Pandora’s box.