“Everything is the situation.” Naming the single topic of conversation and cause of duress in Iraq, “the situation” is aptly abstract and direct, quite beyond language and yet, in need of some measure. Everyone in Iraq feels oppressed by it, worries about it, and tries to survive it, and no one can avoid it. Just so, the painfully well-intended movie called The Situation works hard to convey suitable gravity and inescapability. Its plots are complex, the questions it asks mostly unanswerable. And even as it makes a mucky melodrama out of the war in Iraq, this effect does not seem entirely inappropriate, as it accommodates a U.S. perspective of its own actions.
The film opens on a “ripped-from-the-headlines” sort of moment, as a squad of U.S. soldiers confront a couple of Iraqi teenagers. Gruff and carelessly cruel, the soldiers decry these frightened locals (“Mohammed and Mohammed! Who the fuck are these guys?”), then, determining they’re out after curfew, toss them off a bridge into the Tigris. One boy drowns, leading to vague official noises about an “investigation” and various expressions of frustration and distress by the dead boy’s family. At the funeral, women wail and an uncle queries Mayor Sheikh Tahsin (Saïd Amadis) as to the sort of “compensation” they might expect. “The family whose son was killed by a helicopter received $10,000,” he asserts, even as Tahsin waves him away, saying only, “It’s complicated. The primary complication has to do with Tahsin’s uneasy relationship with the Americans: they don’t trust him, he means to use them for what he can get, and at least three other factions want either a piece of the action or to oust the occupiers altogether.
Into this mess steps intrepid, notoriously blond American journalist Anna (Connie Nielsen), whose commitment to the “truth” seems almost quaint, even as it is, in this context, quite noble. She’s just written a piece extolling the virtues of Rafeeq (Nasser Memarzia) (entitled “One Man’s Long Night”). He and she both hope that “letting Americans know” what’s happening in Iraq may yet be effective; Rafeeq’s belief seems of a piece with his sense of despair about his own community, for, as he puts it, “I tried to tell them our sacrifice was worth something, but the truth is, it wasn’t worth anything.” Just what the “truth” might provoke is unclear, but at this point, lack of truth is odiously, obviously, and relentlessly tragic.
Having heard about the bridge incident in Samarra, Anna wants to bring this incident to international light. Like many Western journalists, she needs help from all manner of native informants, including a former Republican Guard officer and current insurgency leader, Walid (Driss Roukh), her translator Bashar (Omar Berdouni) (who understands the U.S. military and political bent as well as anyone: “I used to fantasize about McDonalds in Baghdad,” he says, “America has never invaded a country with a McDonalds”) and a cameraman, Zaid (Mido Hamada). Each has his own problems. Walid can’t find a morality that makes sense, Bashar is angry with and beholden to his wheeler-dealer diplomat father, Duraid (Mahmoud El Lozy), and Zaid questions his own ambitions and faces distrust from other Iraqis. Asking his affiliation, a taxi driver forgives him for being a Christian (that is, not having a tribe), but warns him against selling his pictures to the Americans. Some lines are too dangerous to cross.
Still, Anna presses on, and feels increasingly drawn to Zaid, the photographer who shoots death and mayhem, as his ethical compass seems at least generally similar to hers. When Zaid brings Anna home to eat with his grandmother (Khadija Kanouni), their dinner conversation comes back round to “the situation.” With a portrait of Jesus on the wall over her head, the grandmother says, “This is what everyone talks about,” says the grandmother. “The Americans, the shortage of gasoline, the problem of electricity, the problem of kidnappings. To think I’d say that the security under Saddam was better!” Though Zaid stops short of this, insisting that surveillance and secret police made it impossible even to talk on the phone under Saddam, all live daily with gunfire, explosions, and constant lack of nearly everything. It’s ironic and a shame, as Duraid notes, that “Iraqis… cue for petrol with all this oil under our feet,” but the situation demands that everyone not only make do, but also angle for even the slightest bit of comfort or, more basically, survival.
As Anna becomes more immersed in “the story,” she pays less attention to warnings issued by her sometimes boyfriend, U.S. intelligence official Dan (Damian Lewis). He argues repeatedly with the Americans he’s supposed to placate and provide with intel, including Major Hanks (Thomas McCarthy), who loathes the Iraqis he’s supposed to instruct (“We’ve been training ’em for months, and they still can’t hold a fuckin’ rifle without looking like a bunch of security guards”) and — incidentally — is involved in the bridge incident cover-up. When Dan suggests that Rafeeq be put to use for the Americans, the ambassador (Peter Eyre) rejects him outright, understanding, like all the other blockheaded Caucasians in frame, that a terrorist is a terrorist. Period, no contexts, no negotiations, no possibilities of communication. Ever.
Dan’s grasp of the situation isn’t precise so as much as it is pragmatic. As he tells off one underling (who describes his credentials for his post as a “Masters in Oriental Studies,” then meets with apt disdain from an Iraqi), “Intelligence is about being able to see accurately in any one moment why someone is doing something.” For Dan, it is a constant dance of data and desire.
On either side of that moment, in a different circumstance, you might not be bale to interpret what you’ve seen. But if you can get a chance at it just once, then you may get a chance of interpolation. If you never see it, you’ll never be able to guess anything. Don’t go behind my back and second guess shit you know nothing about. There is no truth because it’s lost in the fourth dimension of time. And just when you think you understand it, it’s past. The game’s a kaleidoscope.
Anna doesn’t hear this terrific speech, and is mostly caught up with more plainspoken expository business. But even as she tries desperately to find a non-game element in her work, in the lives of those Iraqis she means to help, and even in her American fellow whom she has come to distrust out of hand, she’s doomed to play the girl’s part as the film slips into soapiness. She’s the object of multiple lusts and affections, and the damsel when Dan and company need one. She’s also quite unable to act, except in her own sort of willful haze, and so, like the occupiers she can no longer abide (she was, she admits, once a supporter of the war against Saddam Hussein), she doesn’t see what she’s doing.
And that would be the point. Not unlike director Philip Haas’ disturbing 1995 feature Angels & Insects, the problem here is ceaseless narrow-mindedness. The occupying forces don’t or can’t comprehend the damage they do daily or more expansively. Even when they mean well — and certainly, not all do — the occupiers can’t see themselves. And when at the very last, Anna does see herself, through Zaid’s camera lens, she is heartbroken.