what i watched last week
catching up: downton abbey, justified, killer women

by request: the siege (edward zwick, 1998)

(This was suggested by Neal.)

There are good things to be found in big-budget Hollywood movies (The Siege cost $70 million). You can hire big-name actors who are actually good at their job (Denzel Washington got $12 million for this movie, Bruce Willis got $5 million for a smaller role, Annette Bening got $3 million as the female lead). You can make plans for “big” scenes that might cost a bit, but which will deliver on the screen (and The Siege, which deals with terrorist attacks on New York, has plenty of them). But if your script is confusing, all that money is wasted.

The Siege offers an interesting premise, wrapped in a time capsule (since it came out a few years before 9/11). “Arab” terrorists (I never quite figured out exactly where they were from) commit a series of acts in an attempt to get the release of one of their leaders. They blow up a bus, they blow up an office building, they blow up a theater, they blow up an FBI office. Hundreds of people die. Denzel is the good-guy FBI agent, Willis is a General, and Bening is a mysterious CIA agent.

What follows, though, is a set of provocative scenes, usually accompanied by a slight attempt to mitigate the underlying racism of the film. So 600 people die in an explosion set off by Arab terrorists, and in a later meeting, one Arab man stands up and proclaims that he loves America. Well, glad that’s settled. There is only one Arab character (played by Tony Shalhoub) with any depth at all (he is Denzel’s partner). All other Arabs are either terrorists, or part of a faceless mob. It is true that as the movie progresses and martial law is declared, we are supposed to feel sorry for the Arabs rounded up and forced into a stadium. But again, they are faceless, and Zwick drops the ball in any event. We don’t know these people, so it doesn’t affect us deeply when they are mistreated. (Shalhoub’s son is among the people rounded up, but that’s the first we heard that he even had a son … it’s another example of ass-covering by Zwick.)

The explosions are effectively presented, but other crowd scenes are definitely lacking. Zwick doesn’t spend much time on the rounding up of Arabs, and when people start to rebel, marching and chanting, the protesters look more like day-job hires from the back lot than actual protesters.

Finally, there’s Bening’s CIA agent. Her character is a mess … maybe that’s how it is with the CIA? … she can’t be trusted, except when she can be trusted, which occurs whenever the plot needs to move in a certain direction. It’s hard to feel sympathy for her, even though Bening does what she can with the role, because the character is too shifty.

Denzel is good, as always … you get the feeling he could do a part like this in his sleep, but it’s always better when he’s on the screen. Willis, like Bening, is plagued with a script that plays the conceal/reveal game with his General solely to create tension. There’s nothing he can do except collect his $5 million. The Siege is a decent time-waster, but nothing more. It’s confusing and overblown … we’re not talking The Battle of Algiers here. The mostly-good acting balances out at least some of the anti-Arab stuff (the film was the target of many protests). There’s a good film to be made on the subject, but The Siege is just passable. 6/10. If you’re feeling adventurous, The Battle of Algiers would be a good counter to this film. If you’re looking for more Denzel Washington, I’m partial to Inside Man, which has a great cast and Spike Lee at the top of his game.