Fanatics such as Mao's Red Guards or Europe's Red Brigades have been treated in films abroad but rarely in American political thrillers. Hollywood's richest fodder was the villainy of the Soviets. With the Evil Empire now gone, replacements are needed. Militant Islamic fundamentalists can partly fill this void. This is what The Siege does.
Technically, all its production values are impressive, from sets, photography, music score, crowd scenes and skillful editing. The latter takes effect right away, with a montage that alternates between violence and visual poetry.
A sheik who masterminds terrorists is driven in a Mercedes through the beautiful emptiness of desert sands. In a bloody ambush, he is abducted by the mysterious attackers. Cut to almost lyrical high shots of a mosque in New York City, where a muezzin (the Muslim man who calls the hours of prayer) chants beautifully from a minaret, as the faithful pray, and as a panoramic view of the Big Apple appears.
In the city's One Federal Plaza, Anthony "Hub" Hubbard (Denzel Washington) leads the FBI's New York anti-terrorist unit. Anonymous threats demand the sheik's liberation. Words become acts, a string of bombings: of a bus, a Broadway theater, the Federal Building itself. An attack on a school is thwarted. The body count is in the hundreds.
The FBI reacts with surveillance,chases and arrests. It's a duel of Good vs. Bad, manicheistic but not in the simplistic way of westerns with their immediately identified evildoers and heroes.
The side of Good focuses on Hub and his Lebanon-born buddy Frank Haddad, well-played by Tony Shalhoub who was US-born in a Lebanese family. The other lead role goes to CIA operative Elise Kraft, (Annette Bening).
The FBI is a melting-pot of Oriental-Americans, African-Americans and Everything-Else-Americans. Hub mobilizes them, barks his orders, puts the agents go instantly into high gear. These use high-tech plus deductive reasoning. You might think that the ethnic rainbow's political correctness is too neat, its lighting efficiency too much, but we outsiders cannot tell whether we are witnessing real life or movie life. What matters is that there is convincing verisimilitude on the screen.
The lead trio are forceful,look good and credibly intelligent. There may be some deja vu with the two men but there's none in Elise's quite original role. It underlines both the rivalry and the cooperation between FBI and CIA. Ms. Bening's physical appearance is carefully calculated. Her makeup does not hide her age; she is attractive but not glamorous, lively but not artificially cute. Her persona is full of interesting ambiguities, of role-playing and true feelings, of using charm and sexuality to infiltrate the terrorists. She may also have the best pragmatic line in the film when she admits that no politics and policies can be simon-pure, that there are no clear-cut rights and wrongs, that one "has to choose the right that is the least wrong."
The film's first part is a fine thriller. The second half expands in ways that have caused controversy and indignation among Arab-Americans. As the terrorist menace swells, the American President (Clinton, in genuine TV appearances) is under pressure. He has to resort to martial law, with General Devereaux (Willis) in charge.
An unpleasant, dour man who dislikes Hub and Elise, Devereaux has tunnel vision, sees himself as the country's savior, and proves to be another type of True Believer. Set on rounding up as many Arab-American male New Yorkers as possible-- including the US-born--he does with a cold gusto that includes executing a suspect.
New York in a state of siege is like an occupied country. The procedures remind you of the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WW II; of the stadiums full of arrestees in Pinochet's Chile (cf. the movie Missing); of the Nazis' Kristallnacht in November1938 rampage against the Jews, and of the later herdings that led to death camps.
The developments pit Frank, Hub and Elise against the unbearably arrogant Devereaux. Crucial questions are raised, but they take on a melodramatic, rather simplistic, rhetorical shape that hurts the movie. It would have been better to debate the issues in depth and to give some dimensions to the Arab-Americans. But then there would not have been all the slam-bang of Part II -- and there's something in Hollywood that abhors physical inaction. The joke here is that the long second half is filmically much less exciting than the first.
The Siege's subject is inherently tricky and touchy. Even before iys release, the film sparked protests by Arab-Americans, including the Arab Anti-Defamation League. It is roughly the same situation as for Godard's Hail Mary and Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Both movies were boycotted even before they came out . (Later, in Paris, there was even a fire bombing of the theater showing the Scorsese).
It is a given that in real life there are Good People and Bad People of any creed, race and color--perhaps with the exception of Icelanders who seems to be all good. Islamic terrorists however, what with the almost daily headlines, have special visibility in the West. (Arabs in general even stand out visually because of the women's clothing). Even though the movie goes to some lengths (some of them awkard) to stress that the the acts of a few taint unfairly the many good people, you can't blame Arab-Americans for worrying.
On the other hand, director Zwick is a liberal whose heart generally
seems to be in the right place. Witness his Glory and his Courage Under
Fire (both with Denzel Washington). In a sense, his making The Siege, flaws
and all, was something of an act of courage under fire.