If you're going to make a speculative thriller about an Arab terrorist campaign that forces a U.S. Army occupation of New York City, you might as well be bold about it. Alas, the team that made The Siege seems deeply ashamed for providing audiences with what the premise promises -- bombings, martyrs, Bruce Willis sawing the limbs off a suspect -- and thus flinches even as it offers up the goods. The results are neither fun nor enlightening.
Denzel Washington plays an FBI agent on the trail of Islamic fundamentalists bent on forcing the release of a sheik captured by Willis' elite Army unit. As random acts of unkindness proliferate, the good guys at the FBI are increasingly forced into opposing the bad guys of the Army, even as the CIA -- as embodied by a sleep-deprived Annette Bening -- tries to play off all sides to its own benefit. While a lot of screen time is devoted to political jockeying, most of it is wasted. You know Washington will win -- he's the star.
Washington's effortless command of the screen is indeed the film's major asset, and the movie's first half-hour, as he dashes around Manhattan as America's most competent special agent, is acceptable cop show entertainment. Charismatic as he is, however, Washington can do little with the heavy rhetorical soup he's made to dish out about the Constitution, human rights, freedom, and civil liberties. His superhuman accomplishments -- foiling an explosion in a single bound! -- pale when set against the monstrous crimes of both the Arabs and, later, Willis' fascist occupation forces. And yet the film's namby-pamby ending is never in doubt.
Co-writer and director Edward Zwick and his collaborators try to have it both ways, and as a consequence The Siege succeeds neither as a thriller nor as a cautionary tale. When Arianna Huffington is the film's chief advocate for the military occupation of New York, you know the real issues involved in the suspension of civil liberties in times of crisis won't be getting a hearing. The film licks its lips as it gives us close-ups of helpless old people about to be blown up, or a socialite who's just lost her arm, but draws back from rabble-rousing by fudging the real differences that lead to real conflicts -- the terrorist cause is ineptly personified by Arabs who are either sneaky, silent, or unsubtitled.
The Siege further sags under the burden of being fair to every faction. We see lots of Arab-American actor Tony Shalhoub as Washington's sidekick. He's the Good Arab, he's Gunga Din, he's Tonto to his boss' Lone Ranger. But the device of including Shalhoub as the poster boy of patriotism, together with the film's other scenes of loyal Arab-Americans being pushed around by nasty U.S. troops, doesn't balance the movie's easy adoption of cliches about fanatics with dynamite strapped around their bodies. Instead, these scenes only make worse the True Lies involved in using the well-worn Arab terrorist ploy to begin with. The film cheerily presents what will be an offensive story to many -- more evil Arabs -- while apparently its makers believe they have corrected for bias by adding a side-salad of victims from the same minority group.
Zwick also fails as a filmmaker in his inability to conjure up a specific time and place. It's all very well to shut down the Brooklyn Bridge for a morning to film Army troops marching into that borough, as the press notes inform us was done. Merely photographing an event, however, is insufficient to make it live. The Siege lacks a visceral sense of a city under siege. Everyone save the four top-billed actors looks like an extra in a movie, so for all the scenes of mobs being jostled, Zwick conveys no sense of daily life under fascism.
Ultimately The Siege reminds one not so much of successful what-if thrillers like Seven Days in May or Zwick's 1983 TV movie about nuclear terrorism, Special Bulletin, as it does 1980s duds about a Soviet-occupied U.S. like the feature Red Dawn or the miniseries Amerika. And Bening's appearance reminds us of her role in Mars Attacks! -- this film is about on the same level of credibility as Tim Burton's farce, though Bening at least seems to have fun with her role. Bruce Willis, on the other hand, may win praise for playing a straight role when he's merely throttled down his smirk.
There are better models for political thrillers. Rather than the NYPD Blue Meets the Jihad style they adopted for The Siege, the makers of this movie might instead have looked to the films of European nations with longer histories of violent political unrest. In Francesco Rosi's Illustrious Corpses, for example, a hypercompetent cop comes close to exposing a corrupt power structure -- before being destroyed for his pains. That model of political cinema might be impossible in modern Hollywood, but a dash of Rosi's rigorous intelligence could only have helped this charade.