Viewed through a post-9/11 prism, Edward Zwick’s The Siege seems at times both impossibly naïve and uncomfortably prescient. Ultimately, however, this movie is more effective as postulation than it is as a narrative, smarter about its subject matter than about its story. Whatever points it scores are undermined by shallow, clichéd characters and a stock, predictable ending.
The film opens with the kidnapping of sheik, who seems like a cross between Osama bin Laden and Omar Adbel-Rahman, who was convicted for the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. We don’t know exactly who grabbed him, other than some guy played by Bruce Willis seems to be in charge.
Back in New York City, FBI Special Agent Anthony “Hub” Hubbard (Denzel Washington) is on his way to deal with an apparent hostage situation on board a bus. It turns out just to be a paint bomb. His partner, Frank Haddad (Tony Shaloub) wonders if there is anything here that concerns the FBI, but Hubbard pushes forward. His curiosity is piqued when a mysterious woman, Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), starts sniffing around his investigation. The FBI tracks an Arab man caught smuggling large amounts of cash into the country but he is snatched up by men working for Elise, who Hubbard and Haddad suspect is part of the CIA. They arrest her for interfering with their investigation but while bringing her in, they are called to another hostage situation, also involving a city bus.
This time, the hostage-takers are still inside the bus, and although Hubbard is able to negotiate the release of the children, Elise fears they were just waiting for the TV cameras to arrive to blow the bus. Her fears prove to be true and the bus explodes, killing the rest of the hostages.
Hubbard is one of those movie law enforcement guys who appear to have no life that doesn’t involve his job. Despite being injured in the blast, he remains doggedly on the case and the track the fingerprint of one bomber back to an apartment in Brooklyn. They raid it, killing the other men there in a shootout and find bomb-making materials tied to the bus bombing. Case apparently solved.
At least, until another, bigger bomb goes off in a Broadway theater. The bus was just the beginning, the terrorists warn, unless the U.S. releases Sheik Achmed Bin Talal (Ahmed Ben Larby), the guy grabbed at the beginning of the movie. As the attacks escalate, there is political pressure to “do something,” up to and including declaring martial law in New York City. Arguing strenuously against this approach is General Devereaux, the guy played by Bruce Willis.
After a car bombing at One Federal Plaza, however, the President and Congress order martial law and General Devereaux is put in charge. I guess because he argued against this, they assume he can be trusted to show restraint. Big mistake.
For approximately seventy-five to ninety minutes of its two-hour length, The Siege is a fairly intelligent thriller about a terrorist campaign on United States soil (which was a lot more interesting when it was just speculation). After martial law is declared, however, the movie degrades into a clichéd chase thriller that ultimately cops out on the issues it raised earlier.
The biggest flaw is in the character of General Devereaux, who emerges as the film’s actual villain. As written he has no depth, no dimension at all and never adds up to more than the sum of the lines he is given to speak. He is completely lacking in convincing motivation, making the ultimate showdown at the end pretty unsatisfying.
His character is also pretty illogical when you think just a little bit. He obviously has a hands-on role in covert operations yet he also has direct ties to the president? Sure. And would someone in either of those positions wind up leading the troops into New York City? I doubt it.
More compelling is Annette Benning as Elise (or is it Sharon?), a spy master who seems to have more empathy for the people she’s spying on than who she is spying for. Her character, however, seems to fall into that sexist cliché of the woman whose love for a man blinds her to his misdeeds until it is almost too late.
Despite being protested against by several Arab and Islamic groups, The Siege practically bends over backwards to be fair. This is exemplified by the fact that the most likeable, humorous character is Frank Haddad, an FBI agent of Lebanese descent who is a practicing Muslim. While Tony Shaloub does a great job with the role, having his character’s son be swept up by the troops imposing martial law in Brooklyn is such an obvious ploy for our sympathy that it’s almost insulting.
Denzel Washington is simply Denzel Washington, absolutely reliable and completely believable in a role that requires leadership and quiet competence. This is the kind of role that he could probably play in his sleep, not that he does here. If The Siege had been more about his investigation with the martial law getting it the way, they would have had a much better movie.
For all of its flaws as a story, The Siege gets a few things right. The rise of anti-Arab sentiment and general skittishness of the population are very believable. Some might say that the detention camp in the football stadium, complete with a torture chamber in the men’s room, successfully predicted Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay. I don’t know if I would go that far, because clearly the filmmakers were more influenced by the Japanese internment camps of World War II than they were trying to read tea leaves about the future.
Of course, viewed in the aftermath of September 11, this movie is a lot less fun. What was interesting speculation, imperfectly delivered, is now just too much like the news.