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Metro Pulse Under Fire

Logic and characterization are held hostage by 'The Siege.'

By Zak Weisfeld

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  The end of the Cold War brought chaos to Eastern Europe, economic collapse to the former Soviet Union, and an end to the superpower proxy wars that were once waged throughout the Third World. But perhaps hardest hit by the end of this century's longest running conflict was Hollywood, where the loss of a common enemy was powerfully felt.

Luckily, the world is still filled with threats to our wonderful, if bloated and self-satisfied, way of life. Luckily, there are South American drug dealers and thank God, Yahweh, and Allah for the Middle East.

The Middle East has become the id, the lizard brain of the amnesiac West. Like a Biblical West Virginia, we imagine it as a place where blood feuds last a millennia and easily spill out into the wider, and more civilized, Western world—into places like New York, for instance.

Needless to say, these conflicts have been a great boon to Hollywood. With smoking buildings, shredded rental vans, and severed limbs, terrorism is no longer just a farfetched plot device for espionage thrillers. Since the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, domestic terrorism has moved into the horribly mundane world of firemen, coroners, and garbage collectors. Like drugs and tongue piercing, terrorism has moved into our neighborhood.

In The Siege, the latest movie from director Edward Zwick, terrorism has come to New York City, not just for a wild weekend, but to stay for the season. After American forces kidnap a renegade Islamic cleric responsible for the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (and what a spot of luck for the filmmakers), his followers carry a wave of terror to the Big Apple.

Stopping them is the job of FBI Special Agent Anthony Hubbard, known to you and me as Denzel Washington. Hubbard is a by-the-book Fed whose quest to bring the terrorists to justice takes him into a world of CIA spooks, Arab jihadists, and authoritarian generals—a world of subterfuge and betrayal.

The Siegebegins jauntily enough as terrorists, perhaps having seen Speedone too many times, rig a city bus to explode. Special Agent Hubbard does not take kindly to this sort of thing. He pursues the investigation with tight-lipped intensity and keeps the first half of The Siegetaught and gripping. Bringing some much needed undercurrents to the story is Annette Benning, who plays CIA Agent Elise Kraft, a woman of dubious loyalty. The sparring between Elise and Hubbard, and between their two agencies, adds an interesting twist to the standard action.

Sadly, The Siegeis unable to sustain its initial vigorous pace and complex morality. When General Deveraux, played by Bruce Willis in one of the worst toupees since William Shatner's, declares martial law and cordons off Brooklyn, it is as though he has put a tourniquet around the neck of the movie. We quickly realize that we have met the enemy and, as the saying goes, he is us.

The sacrifice of moral ambiguity and complex plotting on the altar of grand, liberal symbolism is a painful (albeit rare) one. And it is a sacrifice that seems to be deeply felt by Washington himself. It is as though he realizes that he is no longer just a tough-but-humane FBI agent hoping to avert another terrorist attack—he has somehow become Jimmy Stewart, a symbol of all that is good and true and decent in America. It is a heavy burden for Washington to bear and the weight of it can be seen in his face.

When set against Annette Benning's Elise, the toll that saving America from itself takes on Washington is especially clear. Far and away the most interesting character in The Siege, Elise, who does not have to carry the entire weight of the Constitution on her shoulders, has the liberty of remaining peculiar, conflicted, and unsettling. She remains, in short, human.

But it isn't just character that Zwick sacrifices to teach us all a LESSON ABOUT WHAT REALLY MATTERS. He is happy to abandon plausibility as well. Though perhaps the most paranoid among us can accept the US Army invading Brooklyn and the actions of General Deveraux, the conclusion of The Siegestrains credulity to the breaking point.

While the lessons Zwick would teach us—that the Constitution and the rights it secures for us are worth some suffering—are good ones, and a welcome antidote to the implied fascism of most action movies, they make for a glum and overbearing film. Ultimately, the reduction of ambiguous characters into more easily managed categories of good and evil and the simplification of a complex situation to a clear morality tale, are the tools of the propagandist. And these methods have always better served the forces of fanaticism—whether Middle Eastern terrorists or American demagogues—than messy liberal humanism.

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