"The Situation" is promoting itself as the first American dramatic feature film to deal with the occupation of Iraq. While that may be true, it turns out not to matter that much.
For one thing this new work by Philip Haas demonstrates that there are situations in which actuality trumps fiction, where the real world is more dramatically compelling than invention. Even if this inconsequential film were better than it is, it still would have a tough time competing against the remarkable documentaries that have come out of that beleaguered country in the last year.
In 2006, four of the 15 docs short-listed for the Oscar as well as two of the five finalists ("Iraq in Fragments," "My Country, My Country") deal with events in Iraq, enough to cover almost any dramatic angle a fiction film could think up.
Although it is of interest to see a dramatization of a familiar reality, the truth is that "The Situation" doesn't help itself. It is an earnest and sincere attempt to be serious, but it fails to illuminate its subject matter in any meaningful or dramatically satisfying way and ends up no more than a pale echo of the real thing.
"The Situation's" story revolves around Anna Molyneux (Connie Nielsen), an American journalist working in Iraq long enough to know the importance of keeping her blond hair hidden by a chador. Not quite hidden enough, however, because several men in the film end up fatally attracted to her.
Her nominal boyfriend is Dan Murphy (Damian Lewis), an American intelligence officer who alternates between trying to do the right thing and giving in to a "Chinatown"-type despair about the situation: "It's just Iraq," he tells Anna with the glibness that is one of the film's weaknesses. "Don't let it get to you."
Then there is Zaid (Mido Hamada), an Iraqi photographer who works with Anna professionally and has the wan and soulful look of someone who would like to extend that relationship into the personal sphere.
Just because men tend to be smitten by her, don't think that Anna isn't serious about her work. No, sir. When a teenage boy in the city of Samarra dies a suspicious death, Anna heads out in search of the story, which eventually involves both the local sheik and his bitter rival, a leader of the insurgency.
All this sounds acceptable enough on paper, but, as written by first-time screenwriter Wendell Steavenson, herself a former journalist in Iraq, it really isn't.
For one thing, the romance makes an awkward, contrived fit with the nominally serious political stuff, and even those momentous events come off as generic and unconvincing.
The same goes for the dialogue, with such lines as "we're losing hearts and minds" sounding more like billboards for ideas than parts of actual conversations.
Director Haas' best film is his debut, 1995's atmospheric "Angels & Insects," and the most noteworthy aspect of his latest is its ability to capture a state of mind, to convey a sense of societal instability and despair. The political situation has changed since "The Situation" was made, with civil war now at least as much of a threat to Iraq as insurgency, but the sense of it as a place where the worst things happen remains.
"The Situation." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Exclusively at Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue) (323) 464-4226; Laemmle's One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (inside plaza, Fair Oaks at Union Avenue), Pasadena (626) 744-1224.