The American Military Adventure in Iraq
by Thomas E. Ricks
(Hardcover on sale from Amazon)
You can't blame director Philip Haas and screenwiter Wendell Steavenson for trying to sell a comprehensive docu-drama about the situation in Iraq with a love triangle. And with the apex of it a gorgeous blond the likes of Connie Nielsen, you'd think the film smoldered with drama. If only the creative team's talent were up to that of the beauty at the center of the package. Unfortunately, it's not.
Anna Molyneux (Nielsen) is a big blond in a burka plying the desert enclaves of friend and foe in the sands of Iraq in search of news. Surrounded by a confused melange of wartime relationships, she's a lady we don't get to know very well except that she's involved in a sexual relationship with a non-too-clever intelligence officer Dan (Damian Lewis) and GQ handsome Iraqi photographer Zaid (Mido Hamada) who is looking better and better to her in every scene. (Based on Steavenson's own experience of falling head over heels for just such a person in Iraq--it's that closely drawn from her personal life). All this while braving danger and pursuing her stock in trade, a story. For this, she seeks the main players in the ongoing conflict for interviews that can be converted to headlines.
Nor is she above acting as a spy by secretly delivering messages between her embassy beau and Rafeeq, a Iraqi moderate who is a valuable contact and friend. His son Bashar (Omar Berdouni) acts as her interpreter and, when required by circumstances, navigator through the bramble bush that is Iraq.
The film's strong point is in its knowing inclusiveness of all sides and factions, shifting perspective from U.S. officials, to militia leaders, to American troops, to Iraqi families both friendly and hostile and, finally, to a key diplomat who provides intel at a vital time in exchange for a posting far outside the middle east.
But the documentary comprehensiveness is not enough to compensate for direction and a script that don't seem to know how to give us an emotional grip on the plot developments. The drama is on the battlefield (and very dynamically staged combat choreography) but barely conveyed through the characters. The test of your emotional involvement comes at the end. If you don't feel very much about what happens -- as I didn't -- then the film failed for you on the experiential level, as well.
Through a few moments in which Nielsen is given an opportunity to find the essential turmoil within her character and her specific situation, she comes out pretty much on top. Let's say her appearance here doesn't spoil her future potentials since she has extracted all possible from superficial material. The rest is mostly cardboard in which we're asked to stay engaged with stereotypes rather than with people anywhere near individuality. An pointless sex scene doesn't help, feeling too much like voyeurism on strangers.
Still, having served my duty by pointing out the main failures of the film, it's equally obligatory to say that by film's end (106 minutes) you have a more vivid understanding of the primary opposing interests that are deconstructing Iraq than media coverage conveys. This stems from the research and best efforts of those involved. Yes, it's a docudrama and, yes, its artificiality shows, but better that the low budget effort was made (with Morocco substituting for Iraq) than not.
As for Connie Nielsen, what does this exemplary actor have to do to get the "A" script offers her looks and talent demands? "One-Hour Photo," "Gladiator," and "Demonlover" haven't yet collectively put her in the ranks of first choice casting, but this critic is convinced that status is inevitable in her future.
~~ Jules Brenner