Sunday, June 07, 2015

Zaki's Original Review: The Siege

First published: November 6, 1998


Tony Shalhoub and Denzel Washington
Note: It's weird to re-read this review now, given all the real world history that's accrued since I wrote it, much of it revolving around the very scenarios the film depicts -- fictional at the time, now nudging uncomfortably close to reality. I stand by these initial impressions of the movie itself, and if anything I'm saddened by the fact that the concerns I express here remains in place today for most media coverage of stories involving Islam and Muslims.

In one of those back rooms of the White House so secret that even the President probably doesn't know of its existence, the hard-nosed army general and the Chief of Staff assess the casualty reports from a spate of terrorist bombings in New York. Finally, the Chief of Staff comments wryly, "They're attacking our way of life."

It is that one line that Edward Zwick's The Siege wraps itself around. It asks us how far we'd go to protect that selfsame "way of life." Denzel Washington, one of the most talented actors working today teams for the third time with director Zwick (after Glory and Courage Under Fire), and he is aided by a talented cast that includes Annette Bening and Bruce Willis.

The impetus for the film's moral dilemma begins with an onslaught of bombings in New York by a cabal of Muslim militants. This prompts a governmental declaration of martial law in the city. Soon the army is setting up concentration camps with the express purpose of holding Arab-Americans. The parallels to the government's similar detention of Japanese-Americans during the second World War are clear and often vivid.

As he has been in so many of his other roles, Washington is the moral center of the piece. The actor plays FBI special agent Anthony Hubbard, and through the course of the film he is forced to confront the very definition of patriotism. Does loving one's country mean doing whatever it takes, be it illegally detaining or even torturing its citizens, to protect it (as does Willis' General Devereaux)? Or does it instead mean standing up for what the Constitution represents?

There are no easy answers, and to their credit, the filmmakers do their to tackle the situation as honestly as possible. Willis adds several layers to a character that could've easily become one-note, and Bening is passable as that old standby, the mysterious CIA agent who knows more than she's letting on. Wings actor Tony Shalhoub is a likable partner for Washington as Farooq "Frank" Haddad, and he even snares some of the movie's best lines.

However, the very strength of the movie's message is undercut by characterizations of Arabs and Muslims that are at best stereotypical and at worst racist. From the opening, the statement is clear. A tight shot of a Muslim leading the call to prayer pans out to reveal him standing atop the minaret of a mosque. A further pan reveals the glistening New York skyline. The enemy exists, and he is among us. Naturally, it would be naive to say that religious zealotry does not exist, but I continually found myself wondering whether any other religious or ethnic groups would be subjected to such a blanket condemnation.

What is missing from The Siege is some acknowledgement that these various acts of violence are in fact the work of extremists. With an involving story and lightning face pace, The Siege is a taut, gripping thriller in the vein of The Manchurian Candidate. Unfortunately, the movie's ignorant portrayals of other cultures while espousing a message of brotherhood comes across as not a little hypocritical. B-

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