Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Siege (1998)

The Siege is an interesting thriller that may seem overly familiar to viewers now, but certainly seemed quite unique and daring when first released back in 1998. I'm not going to say that it was the first film of this kind, but I will say that after the real shock of 9/11 and then the subsequent escalating war on terror it has become a movie unfairly overshadowed by many more recent releases (including, for example, the thought-provoking Unthinkable).

The basic plot of The Siege concerns retaliation against America, on American soil, by a number of terrorist cells who want one of their leaders returned to them unharmed. That would be all well and good, but nobody is admitting that they actually HAVE the leader in their custody, which makes for quite a stalemate. Caught up in the middle of this tension is staunch federal agent Denzel Washington, working alongside his partner Tony Shalhoub, and a CIA operative (Annette Bening) who keeps clashing with them as she works on her own agenda. Bruce Willis plays Major General William Devereaux, a man who may prove useful or may, in fact, prove to be the most damaging individual in the city.

With Edward Zwick in the director's chair you know that this isn't going to be a vapid and glossy action movie, though perhaps they tried to market it that way when it was first released (I really don't recall). Zwick is the guy who will take a closer look at courage and morality and will make it interesting, entertaining and invested with emotion. That blend isn't always appealing to some, and he doesn't always get it right, but I've enjoyed many of his movies BECAUSE of the mix of emotion and intellect that I'm sure provides plenty of ammunition for his detractors.

Bruce Willis isn't given too much screen-time here, so don't let his presence put you off if you're not a fan (I usually quite like him, but realise that many don't). The main focus here stays on the triangle formed by Denzel, who is on his usual good form, Shalhoub, who is given one of his better movie roles and does great with it, and Bening, who is the weak link, despite how much more interesting her character could have been. I've liked Bening in a lot of movies and tend to think that her weak turn here is more the result of some poor writing than any major failing on her part. And it's not that she's bad, it's just that she should have been better. Sami Bouajila does okay as Samir Nazhde, who might be able to help the good guys stop further attacks if they can keep him in the game long enough, and David Proval does well as another agent doggedly trying to get information that will help break the case.

The screenplay by Zwick, Lawrence Wright and Menno Meyjes is surprisingly good. While the first half of the movie seems to hit standard beats and be walking a well-worn path, the second half takes a different direction and looks at things from a completely different angle. The fact that it was a very prescient movie also adds to its interest. Protests were held by many Muslims and Arab groups when it was initially released, but the film has an ace or two up its sleeve to counter the criticism it received. One of those comes in the shape of Tony Shalhoub's character, a Lebanese-American who is undeniably a good guy through and through. The other ace? Well, I wouldn't want to give too much away. Needless to say, the film shows racial profiling and stereotyping as both a tool used by government agencies and also a mistake made by people driven to distraction while something possibly much worse transpires before their very eyes.

It's a flawed film, as most of Edward Zwick's movies are, but it's also well worth watching, especially in light of events that we've seen since the turn of the 21st century.


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