Fighting Back

Politics aside: The good guys take action in The Siege

The Siege
area theaters

American History X
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

At the Centennial Lakes theater on Friday, representatives of the local Muslim community distributed fliers in reaction to The Siege, a social problem thriller in which barely individuated Arab terrorists wreak havoc on a New York City under martial law. "While the film's real challenge is to the army's unconstitutional over-reaction to acts of violence," the leaflet reads, "negative stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs are introduced and reinforced, but left almost completely unchallenged." True enough, yet this seems an almost generous interpretation of a film in which thousands of Arab-Americans herded into internment camps are ultimately shown as grateful for their country's forceful method of bringing the bombers to justice. And it's certainly a model of intelligence compared to the Star Tribune's recent four-star review, an insultingly reductive whitewash of the movie given the apt headline, "Politics aside, 'Siege' is a sizzling shoot-'em-up."

Politics aside? Indeed, The Siege, having hit on its purely exciting concept, begs to be read as just another blockbuster. "I need names, I need photographs--I don't need a history lesson," says our all-American hero (Denzel Washington), an FBI agent investigating a string of bombings linked to "radical fundamentalists" from someplace in the Middle East where politics matter not at all. Coincidentally, the agent's sidekick (Tony Shalhoub) is a Lebanese American whose primary responsibility is to translate his senior partner's negotiations into Arabic and then disappear during scenes in which Arabs are referred to as "towelheads" and "sand niggers." (Recall that director Edward Zwick's Courage Under Fire, an action-movie incidentally set during the Gulf War, displayed a similar sensitivity toward the enemy.)

Wag the Dog might be intentionally "political" but it has nothing on this well-timed gift to Bill Clinton, who turns up in newsclip form to express his stern "outrage" at the terrorist "cowards" who "must not go unpunished." In this, the president's triggerman is General Devereaux (Bruce Willis), a beret-wearing patriot who addresses Arab-speaking suspects in the American way: "This is the land of opportunity--the opportunity to turn yourselves in!"

The Siege may be just "a glitzy reworking of the my-gun-is-bigger-than-your-gun shoot-'em-up" (per the Strib), but it sure is suspenseful. While one might assume that the bad guys would stand little chance against a hero with all the nobility and virtue of the typical Denzel Washington character, a promiscuous CIA operative (Annette Bening) who has literally been sleeping with the enemy (including an Arab studies instructor at Brooklyn College) mentions that the bombers "have a warrant from God." Politics notwithstanding, the average action-movie fanatic could be forgiven for leaving The Siege with the notion that Islamism is something terrorists use to level the playing field against yet another team of cowboys.

Even more simplistic and sensational than The Siege, American History X suggests that violent racism is just a phase that otherwise-sensitive white kids go through as part of growing up. But after the film's "oppressed" young skinheads begin to change their evil ways and become upstanding adults, might these martyrs still be powerless to avoid the black gangbanger's bullet?

As in an S.E. Hinton novel, 16-year-old Danny (Edward Furlong) lives for idolizing his tough-guy older brother, Derek (Edward Norton), an articulate neo-Nazi punk who, wearing a swastika tattoo over his heart, gleefully slaughters some black car thieves in "self-defense" and then goes to jail. So how did this formerly clean-cut admirer of Native Son become a skinhead? Simple: His fireman father, who'd spoken out at the dinner table against "affirmative blaction," died soon after trying to extinguish a blaze in an African-American crackhouse. As a white-supremacist ringleader in Venice Beach, Derek recites illegal-immigrant statistics to rally his troops before terrorizing the minority employees of a grocery store. "Racist violence is bad," we're meant to think while this gang roughs up a black check-out clerk and her colleagues. Indeed--but it sure makes for some intense cinema, huh?

First-time director Tony Kaye, a veteran of European TV commercials and the self-described "greatest English filmmaker since Alfred Hitchcock," shoots the white-power brutality in slow-mo black-and-white, sometimes with a soundtrack of choir music that wouldn't be out of place in, say, Braveheart. Funny how he invests far less cinematic energy in the scenes of Derek's racial awakening with the help of a wisecracking black man (Guy Torry) whom he meets in the pen. ("In the joint, you the nigga, not me!" this guy convinces our hero.)

Norton makes an earnest effort to inhabit the character, but his mannerisms remain rather too preppy--and, regardless, it's questionable whether Method acting is the proper approach to a film that plays this fast and loose with the worst kind of hate. For a critical take on rabid racism, wait three weeks for Sam Fuller's White Dog (December 2 at 7 p.m.) at the UM's Cowles Auditorium, co-sponsored by Hungry Mind Review and the Loft.

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