|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 26 December 2000|
If 'The Siege' were a little tighter, if the martial law scenes occurred earlier, this would have been a powerful, disturbing movie; it's still entertaining. It's not the action thriller that Fox tried to present it as, but instead is really a suspenseful thriller with a political flavor and at least a few serious points to make. It also features outstanding performances by Denzel Washington and Annette Bening; he's very good, she's even better.
Edward Zwick moved permanently from television ('My So-Called Life') to movies with the impressive 'Glory,' for which Denzel Washington won a supporting-actor Oscar. Zwick's 'Leaving Normal' and 'Legends of the Fall' were respectable, too. With 'The Siege,' he wanted to avoid optical effects as much as possible, creating difficult logistical demands -- buses blow up, troops march through streets, and people are penned up in concentration camps, all on real New York locations. And he's right: the sight of American troops marching grimly across the Brooklyn Bridge is shocking, and works better with a newsreel-like edge of realism.
As the film opens, an anti-American terrorist leader, a sheik, is tracked by satellite and captured by CIA-trained operatives; later, we see the old man in a cell, praying, while Bruce Willis -- his role name not yet established -- glares at him. We later learn he's Desert Storm hero Gen. William Devereaux.
Soon thereafter, New York-based FBI team leader Anthony "Hub" Hubbard (Washington) rushes to a city bus where people are being held hostage. A bomb goes off within the bus -- but it's just a paint bomb; "assault with a deadly color," Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub) wisecracks; he's Hub's Lebanese-American partner, and gets most of the movie's best lines.
A demand ("free him") with the note is mystifying, since Hub and the other FBI agents don't know who's held captive, but it's clear that Muslim terrorists are involved. In a very believable investigation -- the script by Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes and Zwick is well researched -- Hub and the others come into contact with Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), who identifies herself as an agent of the National Security Council, but Hub knows a CIA agent when he sees one.
Hub holds her captive, hoping to find out more, until another bus is taken over -- and then blown up -- by terrorists. These guys mean business, and Hub is determined to stop them. He's convinced that Elise's contact, Samir Nazhde (Sami Bouajila), knows who the terrorists are, if he's not one of them himself, but Elise is almost desperate to hang onto Samir: he's her best source of information about some kinds of terrorist activities -- and she keeps Samir on her side through sex.
Devereaux meets briefly with Hub in New York, claiming that no Muslim leaders are being held captive. A terrorist cell is taken out successfully, and it seems as though this particular threat has ended -- but then a horrendous explosion occurs at a Broadway theater during a lavish charity event, and more threats follow.
Washington decides that putting New York under martial law might be the only way to deal with the problem, Devereaux does his best to talk them out of it. But as more bombs go off in New York, that's what happens: American military forces (rather than the National Guard) occupy an American city for the first time, and Devereaux is in charge, now as much committed to the endeavor as he was opposed to it before. All Arab-Americans and Muslim immigrants are rounded up on a block-by-block basis and put into internment camps in sports stadiums; troops march down neighborhood streets; the city is under siege...
The movie feels like a culmination of many events, all colliding at once, with no one entirely sure about what's going on, or why -- just like real life. In terms of structure, characterization and overall story, it's a well-written script, with the siege part of 'The Siege' occupying the last third of the movie rather than, as might be expected, at least the second half. Unfortunately, the military takeover and the concentration camps are far less convincing than the first two-thirds.
Washington is especially good at revealing complex emotional states, and Hub goes through a lot of them in 'The Siege.' But for the first time since 'Glory,' Washington also gets to play things large: after the explosion, he's furious, he can barely contain his anger -- represented by a nosebleed that won't stop -- but he has to run the situation, too. Washington blazes in these scenes -- he's almost frightening in his intensity; we've hardly ever seen him like this, and it looks good on him.
But as good as he is, Bening is better, partly because her character's motives are so complicated that even she can't figure them out. We gradually learn more about her activities in the Mideast, and what they meant to her. She's filled with a burning sense of guilt -- her devotion to her own country has become entangled with her deep, anguished regrets over what happened in the Mideast, and she never quite sorts them out. I liked the small touch that the Mideast is never physically far from her, either: she wears a lot of rings from the region, and her clothing suggests the styles of the Mideast.
Willis is also good, but his character is less complicated than the others; he's the tough military guy who has a darker side than he cares to reveal, and we've seen characters like that before. We've even seen Willis do it before. The great Tony Shalhoub seems to be able to do just about anything, and gets to run a broad gamut here; Frank is deeply proud of being in the FBI, he's Hub's comic sidekick, and he becomes angry and bitter over the military takeover of New York and the imprisonment of other people like him.
It's rare for American thrillers to raise questions as serious as those raised here. The criticism isn't aimed at the terrorists (and not at Muslims in general) -- but at the idea that we might very well destroy the Constitution while trying to save the country. Too many leaders in this nation have called for the kind of extreme reaction shown so vividly here; this is a determinedly and proudly liberal movie, raising the kinds of questions conservatives rarely do.
Still, the dark satire, the "if this goes on..." elements, are really mostly underpinnings for a solid, well-constructed suspense thriller. 'The Siege' has some weaknesses, including overlength, but it's so well-acted, so intelligent and simply so entertaining that most objections are basically quibbles.
The DVD presents the film in a handsome print with exceptionally good sound, though that's become the norm for DVDs of major studio films. What's really lacking here are any extras. 'The Siege' is an unusual movie, and deserved a commentary track, or interview documentaries, or a written essay -- something. Instead, it's just the plain movie, and though it is quite good, we've come to expect more than just the plain movie from a DVD release. And we've come to deserve more as well.