The Obscene Zone

Photo: Courtesy of Shadow Distribution

The Situation is a fictional film depicting the circus of horrors that is present-day Iraq, and when it works (sporadically), it calls to mind the so-called Pottery Barn rule, the Colin Powell admonishment to George W. Bush on the eve of the invasion: “You break it, you own it.” In the hands of the director, Philip Haas, Iraq four years on is like a Pottery Barn pulverized by Hurricane Katrina. The movie catches the mood of the best recent journalism—the visceral feeling that, as one character puts it, “a box has been opened and all the bad things have come out.” It makes you realize there isn’t enough money in the world to pay for breakage like this.

The film opens with a war crime: A U.S. patrol encounters a pair of Iraqi teens on a Samarra bridge after curfew; the soldiers taunt the boys, shove them, and end up chucking them into the water—where one of them drowns. The incident brings intrepid American reporter Anna Molyneux (Connie Nielsen) sniffing around—although sniffing is a challenge when you’re buried under a hijab for fear of having your throat cut. Beyond her conflicting political loyalties, Anna is torn between two lovers—one a prim American intelligence officer (Damian Lewis) who stays put in the Green Zone and argues logistics with a mulish colonel (John Slattery), the other a stud- muffin Iraqi photographer (Mido Hamada) who plunges into mêlées with camera clicking heroically.

The Situation is, to put it kindly, a spotty piece of work. The script is by Wendell Steavenson, a reporter who seems to know everything about Iraq and next to nothing about screenwriting. The dialogue is flat, and the actors almost never rise above it. Major plotlines—the crime on the bridge, for instance—drift to the periphery. You can almost hear the editor pulling out his hair as he cuts from one droopy, overexpository conversation to the next. My favorite eye-rolling moment is when a U.S. official explains to Anna the rationale for the occupation—“The key to the region is a friendly Iraq … to give us leverage over Syria and Iran … ”—and on cue there’s a boom! And a rat-a-tat! “Does that sound friendly to you?” asks Anna. No, just clunky.

What grabs you isn’t the movie’s foreground, with its too-chewy musings. (“There is no truth, you know … There are no bad guys and no good guys … The truth shifts according to each person you talk to.”) It’s the otherworldly panorama—the bewildering range of conflicting interests, the ubiquitousness of destruction and death, the confusion over who exactly is shooting at whom. Collaborating fruitlessly on a water-treatment plant, American soldiers snicker at the uselessness of the Iraqis while the Iraqis malign the cluelessness of Americans. A bow-tied little American slug speaks confidently of “democracy by force,” while his countrymen seek out one another’s company at Green Zone pool parties. For Rafeeq (Nasser Memarzia), a levelheaded moderate (“The world must stop thinking that we’re religious fanatics!”), there’s no way to win: He’ll either be recruited by the insurgents and targeted by the Americans or vice versa. There’s a casualness about the carnage—and yet the keening of Iraqi women over their loved ones’ mutilated bodies rips you up.

The Situation was shot in Morocco, not that you’d (or at least I’d) notice. If the lines didn’t throw you out of the picture, the movie might pass for a docudrama. That said, the dialogue never reaches heights of surrealism like this, from 60 Minutes:

Scott Pelley: Do you think you owe the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job?

George W. Bush: That we didn’t do a better job or they didn’t do a better job?

And then:

Bush: [Americans] wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that’s significant enough in Iraq.

Pelley: Americans wonder whether …

Bush: Yeah, they wonder whether or not the Iraqis are willing to do hard work.

That kind of exchange accounts for my reply to an invitation to see the new documentary An Unreasonable Man and to meet its subject, Ralph Nader. I wrote I couldn’t make it but to leave my seat vacant in the name of the Iraqi and American dead. Now I’ve seen the movie, and I’m sorry to have been so snotty. Nader was obviously nuts to assert that there wasn’t “a dime’s bit of difference” between Bush and Al Gore. But the film, directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan, does a brilliant job of putting his 2000 run for president in context—to show how consistent it was with everything he has stood for in his remarkable career.

What makes An Unreasonable Man so compelling is its perfectly fluid line. Simply put, the private Nader and the public Nader are the same: There are no contradictions with which to grapple, no byways to explore. The son of a Lebanese immigrant who talked politics at his diner and dinner table, Nader went after the automobile companies when a friend was paralyzed in a crash—and rocketed to national prominence as a result of being tailed and harassed by General Motors. GM’s settlement ended up bankrolling Nader’s Raiders, which accomplished things that—given the current tortoiselike legislative climate—make one’s jaw drop. OSHA, the Clean Air Act, the Freedom of Information Act—there’s Nader leading the charge. A former Raider points out that if Nader had a fraction of Donald Trump’s grandiosity (or money), his name would be on every seat belt.

An ascetic with a love life that even his dogged biographer couldn’t uncover, Nader has turned on people who’ve served him loyally when they compromised too quickly. “Associates, friendships, sentiment are secondary to pushing lifesaving statutes into law,” he says, setting the stage for his “Screw you” to the Democrats in 2000. But Mantel and Skrovan locate the roots of his bitterness in the Reagan era, when people who devoted their careers to tearing down certain government agencies were suddenly appointed to run them, and when the party of opposition began currying favor with the same big corporations. Ultimately, the Democrats froze out the man who should have been their mascot.

The second of the film’s two hours centers on the 2000 election, and Mantel and Skrovan allow such liberal critics as Todd Gitlin and Eric Alterman to vent about Nader’s ethical dishonesty, megalomania, etc. Someone always answers the specific charges, though: It’s clear where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie. What they don’t get from Nader—what no one will ever get from Nader—is an admission that however glorious his grassroots campaign felt at the time, it finished him politically in a way that no corporation could have. An Unreasonable Man does much to rehabilitate his legacy. I’m still furious at him, but no one alive deserves less to be a pariah.

Seraphim Falls is an antiwar Western in which one man (Liam Neeson) pursues another (Pierce Brosnan) through frigid snow-capped mountains, high deserts, and dry lake beds under a scorching sun: primal landscapes, primal emotions, primal men in a primal fight to the death. There, I’ve used the word primal more than my press kit does. Given that the movie is one long chase—Neeson’s motive withheld until the end, the monotony broken only by the slaying of one member of his posse after another—the film is surprisingly gripping. The director, David Von Ancken, and his cinematographer, John Toll, do magical things with the ever-shifting light, and there are splendidly weird turns from Anjelica Huston as a snake-oil salesperson and Tom Noonan as a wagon-train Evangelist.

No one who sees the first fifteen minutes of Seraphim Falls can doubt that Brosnan is the movies’ supreme grunter: He is to acting what poor Monica Seles was to tennis. He added grunts to his feats in his Bond movies, presumably to make 007 seem more human, but they were too jarring in that high-style context. Here, they make for a powerful soundtrack. The movie opens with him taking a bullet in the shoulder (aggghhh!), rolling down an embankment (uggghh arrrr), tumbling into a raging river (raahruuuf!) that dumps him over a falls (yaaaaaaaaah), digging the bullet out of his shoulder (arf%^Sssss$#yyy!) with a big knife and then cauterizing the wound (ayyyeeeeeeeeee!!!). I’m not being facetious: This is very impressive stuff. If his acting career ever stalls, he could make a fortune dubbing kung fu pictures.

Smokin’ Aces raises a vexing question about filmmakers’ attitudes toward violence. The movie is a bloody action farce that painstakingly lays the groundwork for its tumultuous second hour, in which sundry deadly forces (gangsters, competing assassins, FBI agents) converge on the hotel suite of a nightclub weasel (Jeremy Piven) with a fat bounty on his head. This is comic-book nihilism with a dash of MTV syncopation—but as he demonstrated in Narc, the director, Joe Carnahan, is too much of a humanist to make his characters expendable and their deaths good fun. Again and again the killers linger sadistically over the dead or dying bodies of the people they’ve dispatched. Did Carnahan think these sickening scenes would give Smokin’ Aces a moral complexity that’s generally absent from this genre? I think they make the picture seem even more morally bankrupt.

BACKSTORY
It seems the Iraq war is finally working to someone’s benefit—the Moroccan film industry’s. Hollywood is churning out Middle East dramas—and Iraq is, well, Iraq—so directors are turning to Morocco to sub in for war-torn desert locations. In The Situation, Philip Haas used the capital, Rabat, as a stand-in for Baghdad. Other made-in-Morocco films include Irwin Winkler’s Home of the Brave, Paul Haggis’s upcoming The Valley of Elah, and Kimberly Peirce’s untitled project, starring Ryan Phillippe as a soldier fighting the U.S. government. The country has also, of course, appeared in such classics as Lawrence of Arabia.

The Situation
Directed by Philip Haas. Shadow Distribution. Not Yet Rated.

An Unreasonable Man
Directed by Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan. IFC Films. NR.

Seraphim Falls
Directed by David Von Ancken.Samuel Goldwyn. R.

Smokin’ Aces
Directed by Joe Carnahan.Universal. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

The Obscene Zone