Thursday, June 21, 2012

After Years Of Waiting, I Check Out The Pre-9/11 The Siege And Love It!

The Good: Great acting, Wonderful story and social message, Interesting character dynamics, Educational.
The Bad: No DVD bonus features, Pacing
The Basics: Clever, well-acted and intense, The Siege has Denzel Washington and Tony Shalhoub at the forefront of investigations into terrorist attacks on New York City!

There are few films that have come so highly recommended to me in recent years as The Siege, a film about terrorism in the United States that predates the September 11, 2001 attacks to New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. It came to me recommended because of my politics and my appreciation of the works of Edward Zwick, who was one of the co-creators of one of my favorite canceled television shows, Once And Again. Given Zwick's adeptness as a writer and director, I had no doubt going into The Siege that I would be entertained at the very least. And given how much I learned during the Bush Administration about international law, counterterrorism methods and intelligence agency turf wars, the only real unfortunate aspect of taking so long to watch The Siege was that a lot of the information was known to me, so it did not have the educational impact I hoped it might have.

Even so, The Siege reminds viewers of the principles upon which the United States was founded and the importance of both civil rights and maintaining national identity based on principles over slogans. Like the two-part Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes "Homefront" (reviewed here!) and "Paradise Lost" (reviewed here!), The Siege explores terrorism in the United States (or an evolved society based upon it) as a hypothetical, with the idea of inherent human rights at the forefront of the plot and character issues. As a result, the essential character conflict throughout The Siege is one between those who stand for freedom versus those who stand by the enforcement of law and social order at all costs.

FBI agent Tony Hubbard is working the streets of New York City dealing with an odd crime with his team when all hell breaks loose. Accompanied by his partner, an Arab American agent named Frank, the FBI works to negotiate for the safe release of a busload of hostages who are suddenly covered in blue paint when the bomb goes off. The weird crime, if it is a crime, is soon mirrored by the abduction of a bus filled with people which is detonated with most of the people inside, as the FBI and media crews watch. Tony and Frank work to piece together who is behind the terrorist attacks and stop the next one.

Unfortunately for the FBI, the terrorist cells which have sprung up in New York City seem to be working for a cause and with the knowledge of some of those within the U.S.'s intelligence community. As Tony and Frank investigate the bombings, they encounter Elise Kraft, an N.S.C. agent who has a vested interest in the case, as she is the handler for a prominent asset, Samir. As well, Tony develops a relationship with Major General William Devereaux, a high ranking army officer who has contempt for the President's soft policy on terrorism and has a history with a Sheik allegedly captured by U.S. forces years before. As the situation in New York City degenerates as the result of more terrorist attacks, Tony races to prevent chaos and insure freedom as Devereaux declares martial law and effectively takes over the City in search of the final terrorist cell.

The Siege reminds the viewers what the last several years seem to have caused many of us to forget: that individuals are responsible for their actions and that groups working against the United States often have surprisingly rational reasons for their actions, even if their methods are surprising and incomprehensible. In the first scene in The Siege, the motivation for virtually everything that comes after is given when Devereaux is part of an operation that captures a Sheik. Of course, the tensions go deeper than that; the Sheik is captured for prior acts of terrorism.

What Edward Zwick does exceptionally well with this film is illustrate how proud Americans - especially the naturalized ones - are of their heritage as Americans. At the same time, he creates a piece that has a density to it and is not likely to give easy or convenient answers. So, just as Frank is an obvious and proud American who is part of the FBI's counterterrorism unit and has a clear love for the principles of the United States, Samir's status as an informant and agent for the terrorist cells keeps his true allegiances murky. And while Frank is tested when his son is inadvertently put in the internment camp, his desire to uphold the principles of the United States never waver. Instead, he is always fighting the good fight and he makes for a great partner for Anthony.

Zwick spends a good amount of time illustrating the fundamental problem with intelligence agencies in the United States with the first half-hour or more of The Siege. As Anthony and Frank hunt for the criminals responsible for the first bus hijacking, they encounter Elise, who works for the NSC. The way the FBI, NSC and military trip over one another becomes a contributing factor to the declaration of martial law in New York City and their inability to share with one another helps the terrorist cells operating in New York City to gain strength.

But largely, what Zwick does best in The Siege is illustrate the importance of defending essential human rights in the United States. The U.S. suffers when we discriminate and profile and the result is an ugly situation that is anything but American. By establishing the multiethnic task force well before the declaration of martial law, Zwick uses The Siege to show how the ideal works and what happens when it becomes corrupted. The wonderful foil for a post-9/11 world is that Zwick illustrates how terrorism can be dealt with without giving into fear. Unfortunately, The Siege seems more like an ominous foreshadowing, a playbook for the U.S. government on how to exploit the fear of the populace, as opposed to rallying against it.

The Siege is also remarkably well-cast and Zwick uses all of the actors in the film extraordinarily well. Bruce Willis gives a strong performances as Devereaux and Willis's best moments are not realized until one reflects upon the film. Anthony references Elise and Devereaux, who has an apparent ax to grind with her, plays the scene cool and later when one of Elise's secrets comes out, Devereaux looks surprisingly cool. Willis deserves a lot of credit for that earlier moment as he makes the payoff later in the film truly work. Similarly, Sami Bouajila (Samir) and Annette Bening (Elise) are wonderful and have great on-screen chemistry which keeps the viewer guessing as to all of the angles their characters are playing.

Denzel Washington leads the cast and from his performance here, it is easy to see how and why he was cast for The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3. Essentially, he is playing the same character in this earlier work, a man who is cool under pressure and fights the good fight day in and day out. Here Washington is utterly convincing as a professional counterterrorist agent and he flawlessly sells the role.

But it is Tony Shalhoub who completely rocks The Siege. From the moment he first appears on screen, Shalhoub is badass. He carries a gun (convincingly!), investigates the crimes and speaks multiple languages flawlessly. For those used to seeing him as Monk or the other hapless sidekick characters he has played, this is a strong departure and he is completely at home in the role of an efficient investigator who is smart, funny and occasionally menacing.

The Siege continues Zwick's tradition of socially smart films with a message that is timely and pro-American. All that truly drags this one down is that it takes a while to get to its point. As well, the DVD was originally released with only the film's trailer. For such an important film, we'd like more in the way of bonus features (the Blu-Ray now has them!). Still, this remains a great film that should be watched by all Americans, if for no other reason than to remind us that fear need not be the only response to horror.

For other works Edward Zwick is associated with, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Dangerous Beauty
i am sam
Once And Again - Season 1
Once And Again - Season 2
Love And Other Drugs


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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