Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Situation

Posted By on Wed, Apr 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM

As any studio reader will tell you, amateur screenwriters tend to make the same three mistakes: 1) passive or non-existent protagonists, 2) didactic or expository dialogue (i.e., show, don’t tell) and, 3) aimless narratives without a clear set of conflicts. Predictably, first-time screenwriter Wendell Steavenson’s The Situation hits the film school trifecta.

A journalist stationed in Iraq during the war, Steavenson (at the prompting of director Philip Haas) has taken her on-the-ground experiences and fashioned a war story that’s half documentary and half narrative fiction. Unfortunately, The Situation’s tepid love triangle doesn’t quite fit into its fact-based hole.

American reporter Anna Molyneux (Connie Nielsen) becomes convinced that her inquiries into the death of an Iraqi teen thrown from a bridge by U.S. troops has lead to the execution of her friend, Rafeeq. Insurgent leaders were suspicious of his relationships with Westerners like Anna. The Americans think he was a terrorist. Neither side seems to care very much about the actual killing. So, Anna decides to make her last story in Iraq an investigation into what happened. But first she must resolve her torn-between-two-lovers situation with Dan, an idealistic Intelligence officer (Band of Brothers’ Damian Lewis), and young freelance photographer Zaid (Mido Mamada).

It sounds like a plot, but really The Situation flips through characters and locales without coherence or real drama. Scheming community leaders, menacing militiamen, grieving families, arrogant American officials and cynical journalists offer a myriad of viewpoints that bring home the chaos, competing factions, shifting allegiances and ever-present danger of a nation pushed into violent instability. Unfortunately, Steavenson’s black and white characters undermine the script’s “shades of gray” mantra.

Director Haas (Angels and Insects, and the terrific Music of Chance) works hard to give his low-budget affair a sense of urgency but is hamstrung by the unconvincing romantic tangle and ponderous dialogue. Only in the script’s tragic final act, when Anna is kidnapped and Dan and Zaid must work together, does the film develop a pulse. Not only are we grateful for a tangible conflict to finally emerge but also because Anna — a bland and opaque protagonist — is pushed aside by more interesting characters (and actors).

Where The Situation finds the greatest success is its background grace notes, informed, no doubt, by Steavenson’s experiences in Iraq. A raucous pool party and casual dinner in a Chinese restaurant are part of the surreal disconnection Americans in the Green Zone experience in this war-ravaged desert. While Iraqi’s mock and scorn their occupiers’ cluelessness, newly arrived U.S. officials make declarations about “democracy by force” and their relevant “Asian studies” academic background. The pathetic ironies of America’s catastrophic blunders in Iraq beg for a wickedly audacious director like Michael Winterbottom to helm a black comedy version of The Situation. What we have instead is a film that is well-intentioned but, unfortunately, poorly executed.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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