Saturday 21 May 2016

Movie Review: The Siege (1998)

A New York City under martial law terrorism thriller, The Siege is a weird combination of the prescient and the ridiculous.

The CIA in cooperation with U.S. Army General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis) caries out the extra-judicial abduction and extradition of Sheik Akhmed bin Talal, the accused mastermind behind a spate of terrorist attacks against US interests. The Sheik's supporters, working out of various Brooklyn-based cells, initiate a terrorism campaign in New York City to secure his release, including blowing up a bus full of civilians. FBI Agent Anthony "Hub" Hubbard (Denzel Washington) and his Lebanese-born partner Agent Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub) try to make sense of the attacks but are kept in the dark by CIA officer Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), who hovers around the investigation both helping and hindering Hub's work.

Elise eventually reveals to Hub that she controls an agent with contacts among the terrorists, a man named Samir Nazhde (Sami Bouajila). Before Hub can do enough to disrupt the cells, more attacks are unleashed and civilians casualties mount, causing an uproar across the country. The calls for the army to be deployed in New York intensify, leading to a confrontation between Devereaux and Hubbard.

Directed by Edward Zwick, The Siege was released three years before the events of September 11, 2001. As such, the film deserves credit for predicting a lot of what happens when a country and a city are placed in the cross hairs of terrorists. The backlash against the Muslim community, the demands to throw immigrants out of the country, the illegal torture of suspects, and the hysteria that leads to the erosion of civil liberties all actually did happen in various forms after 9/11, and here Zwick and his team of three screenwriters capture close variations of the same.

Much less successful are the characterizations and some of the depictions of conflict between various arms of a government under crisis. The Siege is quick to have the FBI, the CIA and the Army at each others' throats, issuing threats with guns and rifles drawn, and arresting and incarcerating each other. While there are always jurisdictional turf wars, tensions and finger pointing, The Siege carries this element to ludicrous extremes and starts to lose credibility as soon as Hubble and Elise fail to communicate at the most basic level.

And in general, the characters are quite one-dimensional despite an impressive cast. Annette Bening gets the most to work with as Elise gradually reveals a backstory inspired by the 1990-91 Gulf War, but otherwise there is little depth to Hubbard, Haddad and Devereaux. Also lacking is any thoughtful context to the acts of terrorism as spoken by the perpetrators. They remain silent and faceless killers, their agenda and motivations filled in by others.

The Siege does enjoy well-polished moments of tension and urban horror as cruel atrocities are committed against an urban population. The depictions of the US Army as a blunt instrument that only knows to crudely trample on whatever terrain it is deployed to also ring true. In tackling the thorny issue of how to react to bloodthirsty terrorists without resorting to their tactics, the film manages to be prophetic and preposterous in equal measures..

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