Final Jeopardy

Fascism is in the air. Well, at least it's on movie screens. In a two-week stretch we've seen old Nazis (Life Is Beautiful), old Nazis training neo-Nazis (Apt Pupil), book burning (Pleasantville), and now, with The Siege, a story of full-blown military rule on American soil. Still in the wings: Enemy of the State, due out Thanksgiving, which may or may not be part of the trend. (From the trailers it's impossible to tell whether Enemy of the State is driven by political ideas or is merely another thriller with conspiratorial government bogeymen providing a convenient plot device.)

The trailers for The Siege similarly leave room for confusion: They suggest the sort of federal-conspiracy scenario that would have seemed downright subversive in pre-1963 films, but one that has, since the Kennedy assassination, become a simple, all-purpose story contrivance, supplementing and at times almost supplanting the master criminals, Nazis, communists, and freelance troublemakers who have traditionally served as antagonists for commercial Hollywood action films.

But in reality The Siege is a political film in the form of a thriller rather than a garden-variety potboiler gleefully helping itself to stock political tropes from the genre's grab bag. Which is to say that in the spectrum of political thrillers it falls closer to, say, Z or JFK than to Mercury Rising or The Peacemaker.

The Siege was directed and co-written (with Lawrence Wright and Menno Meyjes) by Edward Zwick, whose first great success was with another terrorist story: the terrific 1983 TV movie Special Bulletin. (So impressed was critic Leonard Maltin that he added a new rating, "Way Above Average," to his TV-movie scale in his popular film guide, a rating he has never employed again.) Zwick (and partner Marshall Herskovitz) went on to create TV's extraordinarily irritating thirtysomething, and he has had mixed success with big-screen features About Last Night ... (1986), Leaving Normal (1992), Legends of the Fall (1994), and Courage Under Fire (1996). Judging from his best effort, Glory (1989), he should be just the filmmaker to pull off a deft blend of political content and crowd-pleasing drama.

Yet while The Siege is, most of the time, a taut nail-biter, the filmmakers' attempts to be serious and evenhanded in the presentation of ideas are occasionally at odds with their efforts to satisfy action fans. Moreover, there are moments when plot and character development are determined more by a thematic agenda than by logic.

Denzel Washington stars as Anthony "Hub" Hubbard, FBI agent in charge of the Joint FBI/NYPD Terrorism Task Force. Aided by his faithful Arab-American partner-interpreter Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub), Hubbard tries to combat a series of attacks by a terrorist organization (apparently Palestinian) operating out of Brooklyn's Arab community. As the group's actions escalate from a paint bomb to blowing up a bus, a Broadway theater, and a federal building, New York City is paralyzed by fear.

Confusing matters is the terrorists' enigmatic demand: "Release him." Release who? Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), a mysterious federal agent who brazenly plows her way into Hubbard's investigation, appears to know.

Up to this point the story is your basic thriller. But as Hubbard proves unable to stem the terror, portions of the citizenry, the media, and the government begin to call for more extreme measures: a declaration of martial law, with the army taking over the investigation. (The right-wing media are represented by columnist and cable-news talking head Arianna Huffington, convincingly playing herself.)

Oddly, the army man on tap to run such an operation, Oliver North clone Gen. William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), opposes the plan. "The army is a blunt instrument," he tells a federal panel. "It's no good for surgery."

"You don't use ASPCA rules to catch a junkyard dog," drawls a Southern politician. "You set loose a meaner, bigger dog."

Devereaux's reluctance is one of the weakest elements in the film. It's totally inconsistent with his subsequent actions, which have all the earmarks of a last-minute rewrite to please either the army or Willis's handlers. In fact once Devereaux is put in charge, he goes about his task like a man possessed -- not merely a good soldier, but a rabid ideologue. Rather than surround a site in which the FBI is searching for a suspect, Devereaux bombs it, law enforcement agents be damned. A bit heavy-handed even for the military, no?

For most of the movie Zwick's strategy is both sound and daring. By making the terror so visceral he seduces the audience into believing that maybe, just this once, suspending the Bill of Rights isn't such a bad idea. Hundreds of innocent people are being killed, and more are threatened. Do we really have to sit back and play by the rules? Sure, it's terrible to round up citizens purely on the basis of ethnicity. But if you know that you're looking for Arabs of a certain age, and it's possible to examine everyone who fits that description, isn't it worth temporarily trampling the rights of a few thousand innocents in order to save the lives of a greater number of the equally innocent?

We know in our hearts that it's not right, but The Siege sets up a scenario in which it begins to make sense. Then along comes the last third of the movie to refute such logic. Unfortunately the refutation is not nearly as well executed as the setup. It requires us to accept that, yes, left to his own devices Hubbard will ultimately stop the terrorists. (Sure, but what if he couldn't?) And we also have to believe that the formerly cautious Devereaux will be unnecessarily wanton and clumsy and will eventually, in accordance with constitutional duty, refuse to respond to the proper challenge to his authority. (What if he were behaving more judiciously?)

In either of those cases -- neither of which seems impossible -- we would be left believing that martial law isn't all that unreasonable. That Zwick stacks his deck so blatantly is the movie's greatest failing. It's up to Washington to convince us that the film has made its point: His delivery of Hubbard's big climactic speech is so compelling that we find ourselves buying the message, even though it's not adequately supported by what has already taken place. (It's also amusing and frankly unbelievable that FBI agents are portrayed as squeaky-clean defenders of our constitutional rights.)

Long before its release the film drew loud protests from the Arab-American community, and though its political heart is in the right place, it isn't always as sensitive as it could be. Still, compared to Hollywood's usual treatment of Arabs (exemplified by movies such as True Lies and Into the Night), The Siege comes off as downright progressive. The most controversial scene, in which the head terrorist engages in Islamic purification rituals before going off on his final insane mission, seems at best gratuitous. And a counterbalancing scene of Hubbard attending a religious ceremony of Haddad's family is awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative, marking it almost surely as an afterthought to mitigate criticism.

Whatever its failings, The Siege is a more earnest attempt at using the thriller format to convey patriotic ideals than we're accustomed to seeing from Hollywood. Too bad its arguments aren't more convincing.

The Siege.
Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes, and Edward Zwick. Starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis, and Tony Shalhoub.

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