Saturday, 10 November 2007

Why 'The Siege' is Not a 'Daft Thriller'

I seem to be in a mood for writing about movies at the moment. Inspired by CP's comments on the 'what if?'s around Shakespeare I am currently working on a big posting about covers of lost books, so you will have to be patient for that, but in the meantime I will continue throwing out tablets of lead about movies. This one is a very much eye-to-blog one. Sometimes I ponder over an issue for weeks, sometimes they are even ideas I have had floating around for years, but in this case it was inspired by something I read just this morning in the UK newspaper, 'The Guardian'. I only get time to read one newspaper per week and the Saturday edition of this one is the one I choose. It has a strong section about entertainment media and though I now only watch 1-2 television programmes a week (a sharp contrast to just 3-4 years ago) I like to keep abreast of what is on, plus all the stuff about computer games and movies (which I generally rent on DVD, again in contrast to the early to mid-2000s when I went to the cinema 3-4 times per month). Makes me sound rather reclusive these days, but I suppose commuting 400 miles per week rather than the 50 miles per week I used to do has a large part in that.

Anyway, I generally agree with 'The Guardian' reviews of movies being shown on television. There is a little bit of schizophrenia obvious, because the person who writes the 'Film Choice' section for the television guide often disagrees with the person who writes the little reviews in the programme listings, it is clear their tastes are very different and I tend to agree more with the former than the latter. The listings reviewer, probably because of having less space, falls very much into pat assumptions, they are the kind of person that describes 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' as 'thriller from anti-Semitic author, John Buchan' a line that I have challenged in an earlier posting. Anyway today their comment on 'The Siege' (1999), which is showing in the coming week on British television as a 'daft thriller' is a terrible blunder. In this posting I will say why and if you have not seen it why you should watch it.

The film is about a terrorist attack in New York investigated by FBI officers Anthony Hubbard played by Denzel Washington and Frank Haddad played by Tony Shaloub, who importantly is an Arab-American. It soon becomes apparent that the attack has been caused by muslim militants who go on to threaten other attacks and the thriller element is how the FBI track down the terrorists. However, what gives the film more depth than the usual action thriller is what begins to happen in New York. Regulations become increasingly strict and Arab-Americans in the city are interned, including Haddad's son (this is reminiscent of the USA's interning of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War) and ultimately martial law is imposed on the city under the control of Major-General Devereaux played by Bruce Willis. Hubbard has to resolve the situation without descending into barbaric approaches to respond to barbarism, whereas Deveraux begins personally torturing suspects. In addition there is the interference of the CIA in the form of Elise Kraft played by Annette Bening and it becomes clear that the unit attacking New York was trained by the CIA and feeling betrayed has come to get some recompense for how they have been used.

I have probably given away too much of the plot, but I feel that is important in terms of discussing the film and why it is not 'daft'. The terrorist action does not approach the scale of the 11th September 2001 attacks on New York but in 1999 no-one who predicted such vast terrorist attacks would have been believed in the USA which at the time, despite the earlier bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, still felt itself invulnerable to foreign terrorism (as opposed to domestic terrorism as in the Oklahoma bombing). The film was mainstream, I saw it in 1999 in Leicester Square, the premier location for cinemas in the UK. This partly stemmed from having four big names in the film. However, by being mainstream it was able to transmit and discuss important questions to the viewing public, especially in the USA, (and people who would not pay to see a Michael Moore movie or DVD) about compromising civil liberties when one is seeking to control terrorism and how the involvement of the military can easily escalate. If we look at the USA's approach to 'homeland security' and its use of torture at Abu Gharib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, we can see that predictions in 'The Siege' were not out of step with what happened. In addition, an important element, is that the USA has to realise that for decades it has been arming and training people across the world to fight in its interest, and has often lied to them and actually exploited situations for its rather than their benefit and a time has come when it has to face up to such actions. The reason why the Mujahadeen was able to seize power in Afghanistan was because they had been trained and equipped by the USA. Insurgents in Iraq are often using weapons sold to Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1980s in order to fight Iran.

'The Siege' was not a box office success, probably because it challenged rather than comforted the US audience. If there had been a delay of 3 years in its production I doubt it would have ever been released. It was one of the most rented DVDs following the 11th September 2001 attacks and yet, again, I am sure that many renters were suprised that it did not echo the very simplistic, jingoistic attitudes coming out of the USA at the time. 'The Siege' is not a great movie, but it should not be simply written off as a 'daft thriller', it is entertaining, has genuine tension and more than that, more than the large bulk of contemporary movies, actually connects into current developments in the USA and the wider world in an accessible way.


cardinal_wolsey said...

Maybe the Grauniad confused the film with "Under Siege" starring Steven Segal, which is certainly a "daft thriller" (although a good one).

Rooksmoor said...

Cardinal, good point, you are probably right. That says two things: 1) it is a shame they made that blunder as I guess 'The Siege' was the kind of movie which would have appealed to the average 'The Guardian' (aka 'The Grauniad' based on its terrible typographical errors of the 1960s-1980s) reader; 2) it suggests the reviewer should take more care in what s/he is reviewing.