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Non-Review Review: The Siege

The Siege has the benefit of becoming a lot more relevent in the past couple of years. Exploring the aftermath of a series of terrorist atrocities on New York City by Islamic extremists, the film isn’t exact a subtle exploration of the relationship between liberty and security – instead preferring to offer two-dimensional strawmen instead of characters or legitimate viewpoints. Still, despite its heavy-handedness, it does have some interesting insights into the world after it has been shaken to its core.

Washington under Siege...

I get the sense that The Siege really shouldn’t be a film. The very idea – an exploration of the legal and social repurcussions of major loss of life on American soil due to terrorism – is one that is very difficult to play out in under two hours. Maybe this would work much better as a television minseries. The film suffers greatly from the fact that nothing really has room to breath – in particular, it seems that terrorists seem to time their strikes in order to interrupt important policy discussions (indeed, nearly every major “let’s sit down and talk about this” scene is juxtaposed or cut off by the latest atrocity).

As an action film, the story is a slave to the action beats. We can’t have a half-hour of talking heads or characterisation without somebody shooting somebody else or an explosion or something. The net effect is that the audience never really has the time to let the events that have occurred sink in – instead of a handful of terrorist attacks separated by days or even weeks, it seems almost like a full scale invasion. The true terror of a “what if” scenario like this – how would we respond in the aftermath of a horrible act – is what we do in the silence and darkness that follow. Questions of civil rights were no easier to answer in the wake of Spetember 11th because America didn’t find itself targeted again and again.

When the film came out, it was protested by the usual groups – anti-defamation leagues and the like – who were somewhat upset by the portrayal of the extremists in the film. While I have absolutely no problem with these sorts of fanatics being portrayed as people who kill because they’re evil, the observation points out a fairly obvious problem with the structure of the film. The movie isn’t about the Arab extremists. They could just as easily be any number of other national or international threats – they just serve a plot function to get the movie to its central moral quandry. The focus of the movie is very clearly on how our response to events like this define us.

Battle of the Will(i)s...

Unfortunately the movie doesn’t tackle that issue particularly well. Most obviously, the movie spends quite a bit of time focusing on the Islamic extremists who are ultimately incidental to the plot – the constant terror attacks draw focus away from the response to them. The other fundamental flaw is that it lacks sophistication. The three leads – Denzel Washington, Annette Benning and Bruce Willis – represent three different philosophies – law above all else, rules as subservient to political reality and rule through force, respectively. Guess which one of these turns out to be completely right and which two end up being completely wrong. Go on. I’ll bet you can get it in one.

As such, these three leads represent extreme viewpoints on the relationship between civil rights and public safety. The movie doesn’t seem to accept compromise. Annette Benning’s character suggests at one point that the world might be slightly greyer – that some times we have to choose “the wrong that is most right”, but the film smugly rejects that notion. It is never suggested that all three approaches carry their own different prices, and that making a principled choice may have a dire cost down the line, but that it’s still the right choice. Instead, it is suggested that the right choice is the best choice in any and all circumstances.

Removing a hint of moral ambiguity and pushing its characters to the extreme ends of the scale (indeed, those characters we aren’t meant to agree with are either incompetent or stone-cold crazy), the film sells itself short. Which is a shame, because it has some valid observations to make, particularly bearing in mind how far ahead of the 2001 attack it was. While internment without trial and cold-blooded torture were never introduced on American soil in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Centre, it is perhaps an interesting reflection on the more extreme actions that would take place overseas – Iraq and Afghanistan – situations which were certainly “more under seige” than American soil.

That said, it’s a reasonably well-produced film, with the action scenes handled well and the three leads doing the best to flesh out the one-note characters they are given. There’s really only so much that they can do, but Denzel Washington has been one of Hollywood’s finest leading men in the past couple of decades for a reason.

All in all, The Seige is arguably far more interesting in concept than in execution. It’s remarkably heavy-handed, but it’s the kind of film you’d never get made in the current climate. It’s decent thriller that deals with some heavy subject matter – perhaps as efficiently as a blockbuster could handle something so weighty.

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