“There is no truth, you know. It’s not about locking up all the bad guys. It doesn’t work like that.” – Dan Murphy
The Situation is the first U.S. feature film that deals with the complexities of the American occupation in Iraq. Written by Wendell Steavenson, a real-life journalist, based on her on-the-ground experiences in war-torn Iraq, and directed by the veteran independent film director Philip Haas (Angels and Insects, anyone?), the movie stars Connie Nielsen, Mido Hamada and John Slattery along with Damian Lewis. The story is exclusively set in Iraq but the movie was shot, for obvious reasons, in Morocco.
So, yes, Homeland is not the first project concerning the war in Iraq that Damian was involved with. There was, in fact, well-meaning CIA intelligent officer Dan Murphy before the US Marine Nicholas Brody.
Damian talks about The Situation in an interview with Factory Magazine in 2005:
“The Situation with Connie Nielsen is a really interesting political thriller set in contemporary Iraq. At the center of this is a love triangle, all based on true facts, between Connie who is a journalist, my character who is an Arab Affairs specialist seconded to the CIA, and an Iraqi war photographer. The script is written by a first-time script writer – I can’t think of anything more interesting than telling a story about Iraq. But it’s no way a macho film story.”
While the love triangle sits at the center of the movie, the opening scene, based on an actual incident that happened in the city of Samarra in May 2003, sets the tone.
Two Iraqi teenagers are detained by a group of American soldiers because they are trying to cross a bridge after the evening curfew. The soldiers intimidate the kids and ultimately push them into River Tigris where one of them drowns.
Anna Molyneux, an American journalist, starts to investigate the case. As she talks to the Iraqis she trusts to help her access the information, you sense that all these people had some hope about the future of their country when the Americans arrived; however, that hope faded away pretty quickly after the occupation.
Anna’s translator Bashar is a young man who used to dream about having a beer in a café along the river, like his dad did in 1970s, after the occupation. He cannot do any of it due to the raids, bombings, and random violence all over the place. There is no work for young people. The children are playing “Americans vs Mujahideen” on the streets. The Iraqis cannot trust their own police force because it is run by criminals. It is a big jungle where no rules apply.
Rafeeq, a moderate, and Anna’s most trusted source, is stuck between a rock and a hard place. His goal is to make the West understand, through Anna’s articles, that the Iraqis are not just a bunch of religious fanatics. However, he is being bullied simultaneously by Walid, an independent insurgent leader, who does not like the fact that Rafeeq cooperates with the Americans, and by Sheikh Tahsin, a tribal chief, who tells Rafeeq to choose his friends carefully when he sees him talking to Walid. Walid may have a few Kalashnikovs while it is a better idea to make allies with the greater power, advises the Sheikh.
While bombings and raids are a fact of daily life for the Iraqis, the life goes on in the Green Zone with the occasional pool party, dinner at the Chinese restaurant and the ongoing talk about the big PX coming so that the GIs can shop in style. Oh, and who is that guy in the swimsuit?
Meet Dan Murphy, a CIA intelligence officer and Anna’s sometime boy friend of sorts. They seem to be casually involved. We see them having sex with constant automatic machine gun sounds in the background. The sex feels more like a necessity than pleasure for these two to cope and probably to feel alive as they try to do their job on a daily basis in the middle of a huge mess.
Dan is frustrated there is money to boost the morale in the Green Zone while he has to jump hurdles to secure funds for hospital equipment or for a water treatment plant in Samarra.
Dan believes in rebuilding Iraq because “winning hearts and minds” could sustain a relationship based on trust in the long run. He is in a never-ending argument with military and government officials who do neither appreciate the Iraqis (“We’ve been training ’em for months, and they still can’t hold a fuckin’ rifle without looking like a bunch of security guards”) nor Dan’s efforts to engage moderate insurgents to build alliances (“a terrorist is a terrorist.”)
Damian talks about the argument the movie makes in an interview with LA Times in 2006:
“Is it futile, us trying to rebuild, democratize Iraq, when The Situation shows you how difficult that process is? The arguments are, yes, it’s worth it, we should persevere, versus it isn’t worth it, we should get out. That’s apart from ‘Is it right or wrong?’ That’s a different argument entirely.”
These are questions we have not been able to fully answer even some 10 years after this movie was made.
Dan represents the well-meaning, if a bit illusioned, liberal point of view in the war. His sidekick Wesley, on the other hand, looking and sounding exactly like Tucker Carlson, and believing his MA in Oriental Studies makes him an expert of the area and its people, represents the conservative point of view. He talks about “democracy by force” and argues that a stable Iraq works for American interests in the context of other places such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The character that completes the love triangle Damian talks about above is Zaid. Anna makes friends with this war photographer coming from a Christian Iraqi family. He takes her to his home for dinner cooked by his grandmother. They eat by candlelight but not for romantic reasons. There is power outage. Over dinner, when asked by Zaid’s brother if she supported the war, Anna says she did because she believed at the time nothing could be worse than Saddam (I am pretty sure a lot of us can identify with her!) We find out Zaid’s parents were victims of the Saddam regime because they were killed by the government for being communists. And Zaid’s grandmother cannot believe the words coming out of her own mouth right now but she thinks security was better under Saddam.
Anna finds herself drifting away from Dan who, despite all his genuine efforts to win hearts and minds in Iraq, tells her:
“It’s just Iraq. Please do not let it get to you.”
And, as she gets deeper into the lives of the locals who will have to live and breathe this huge mess for a long time, she is increasingly drawn to Zaid.
Philip Haas is proud of having made The Situation for a couple of reasons:
“If you look historically at films made about US war abroad – and I guess I’m talking about Vietnam films – they were all made after the fact and they’re all about Americans. Even in ‘Apocalypse Now’ as great a film as that is, the Vietnamese are faceless. I wanted to do something that was immediate and that provided the Iraqi characters with some humanity.”
And, according to his account in the film’s press packet, the U.S. soldiers that saw the film as part of a test audience reflected their experience in Iraq accurately:
“I would say that at least a dozen soldiers have seen it, and they’ve all been supportive. The feeling was that the film was accurate in terms of the US soldier’s experience in Iraq – the complexity, the uncertainty, the danger, the violence, and the lack of information.”
The Situation, an intimate portrayal of war, does not paint a black and white picture. The movie lets you go behind the headlines and the statistics that make you feel numb after a while and into the human stories that let Iraq get to you, and rightly so. Disorder. Misunderstanding. Violence. There are Americans who abuse the locals, and then there are Iraqi tribal chiefs and ruthless insurgent leaders that force everyone to choose a side. And it is quite difficult to demonize anyone. Everyone is confused. Everyone is appalled. Everyone is frightened. Everyone is trying to survive. And Damian’s beautiful delivery of Dan’s forceful monologue with Wesley is quite helpful in understanding “the situation” that everyone talks about all the time in the movie.
“There is no truth, you know. It’s not about locking up all the bad guys. It doesn’t work like that. There are no bad guys. There are no good guys. It’s not gray, either. It’s just that the truth shifts according to each person you talk to. And as the truth shifts, it gets obscured under another layer of agenda.”
The Situation is telling a story that we have known for a long time. And it is quite upsetting. You have to see it.
The Situation is available on DVD on Netflix and Amazon.