Ed Zwick and Pre-9/11 Cinema
Filmmaker Edward Zwick is one of the more unsung directors to emerge out of the late '80's, early '90's, despite the facts his films have been mostly successful critically and commercially. His first film was the popular romantic dramedy film, About Last Night. Since then, while occasionally dabbling in romantic comedies, Zwick has mostly made films about social and racial issues.
He has been described as a "throwback to an earlier era, an extremely cerebral director whose movies consistently feature fully rounded characters, difficult moral issues, and plots that thrive on the ambiguity of authority." Films he's made such as Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond, have succeeded in these categories, and frequent collaborator, Denzel Washington, won his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1989 for Glory.
In 1998, Zwick collaborated again with Denzel in the ambitious thriller about a fictional situation in which terrorist cells have made several attacks on New York City, called The Siege. Washington plays FBI Special Agent Anthony Hubbard, and his Lebanese-American partner Frank Haddad, is played by Tony Shaloub. Washington leads an FBI task force, after a Muslim terrorist group has blown up a bus, he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate. However, the terrorist incidents begin to escalate. A crowded theater is bombed and later the FBI's New York City field office is destroyed with over 600 casualties. Hubbard and Haddad are aided by a somewhat shady CIA agent played by Annette Bening.
In spite of objections, the President of the United States declares martial law and the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, under Major General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), occupies and seals off Brooklyn in an effort to find the remaining terrorist cells. Subsequently all young males of Arab descent, including Haddad's son Frank, Jr., are rounded up and detained in Yankee Stadium.
This film was made before the events of September 11, 2001. Before that day, the two major acts of terrorism our country experienced were the 1993 World Trade Center bombing by Arab terrorists, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, in which Arab terrorists were immediately assumed responsible, but as it turned out they were not. Therefore, the decision by Zwick to make the terrorists Arab was seen as controversial at the time.
When the film opened, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee came out against the film. Its spokesman Hussein Ibish said, "The Siege is extremely offensive. It's beyond offensive. We're used to offensive, that's become a daily thing. This is actually dangerous." He thought it was "Insidious and incendiary" because it "reinforces stereotypes that lead to hate crimes."
Director Edward Zwick had met with Arab Americans, who suggested that the story be changed to mirror the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, when Arabs were immediately assumed responsible. This idea was rejected. Zwick noted that The Siege's villains also include members of the U.S. government, and dismissed the criticism, saying, "Anytime you talk about issues that touch on religion of any kind, you can anticipate this kind of reaction. Should we only present every group as paragons and monoliths of virtue? The movie inspires to engender this kind of dialogue. I happen to come from the school that thinks that movies should not only make you uncomfortable, they might make you think. …You can anticipate any kind of reaction in these times in which sensitivity seems very high in the culture. I have a friend who says, if you've not offended somebody, you're a nobody. …How does it feel to be a lightning rod? It gets the blood going. I think it's better than being universally ignored. In a culture where there seems to be so much to talk about, it's good to be talked about."
In a September 2007 interview, screenwriter Lawrence Wright attributed the film's failure at the box office to Muslim and Arab protests at theaters playing the film, but also claimed that it was the most rented movie in America after the September 11 attacks.
My Thoughts on the Film
The film received mixed reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes awards the film a score of 45% based on 60 reviews, thus branding it "rotten". Critics who didn't like the film felt Zwick could benefit from more subtlety, a criticism Zwick has often received, and one I kind of agree with. However, his films are so well made, and The Siege is no exception, that I forgive Zwick of that charge. The film was seen as kind of ridiculous at the time, however, as one cultural critic pointed out, 'suddenly, after the events of 9/11, this film cannot be so easily dismissed as a hyper-real projection of Islamic stereotyping. We are forced to consider the grim possibility that the events here could actually happen'.
Zwick does two things tremendously well in The Siege, the first is creating tension, the film is jam-packed with edge of your seat. The performances are fine all across the board, as Denzel Washington turns in another noteworthy performance, that's powerful. Tony Shalhoub and Annette Benning are excellent as well in crucial supporting roles. Bruce Willis does a fine job, playing against type, in a quasi-villainous role.
Which brings me to the second thing Zwick did tremendously well, he chose not to only focus the film on Arab terrorism.
"What the movie is most deeply about – it's about our own latent possibilities of repression, stereotyping and prejudice," says Zwick. "To see Americans rounded up in the streets, to see Americans put into stadiums, to see people held without habeas corpus – to have their rights violated in such a way is such a chilling and just terrifying thing to see – that is what one takes away, I believe, from this film."
Indeed, in 1998, it probably would have seemed ridiculous to see New York City in a state of martial law, but after 9/11, suddenly it didn't seem so farfetched. This is a film that still works to this day, because of our government increasingly infringing upon our freedoms, whether via Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, or the recent revelations about the NSA. The biggest moral dilemma in the film is at what cost do we violate our own rights as American citizens in order to protect our freedoms? Not only does this film handle that dilemma, as well as being a highly suspenseful yarn about terrorism so well, Zwick made this three years before 9/11 and was able to make a thoughtful film that later some figures in our government and armed forces would ignore. Every character with opposing views in the film believe they are doing the right thing, but in the end it harkens back to those basic concepts about the right of all United States citizens.
Some people have criticized this speech near the end of the film as "preachy", but goddamn if it didn't foreshadow our country's policy after 9/11 with "enhanced interrogation techniques". This film makes the point that torture does not work because anyone will admit to anything under torture.
This reminds me of a story about Richard Nixon, and his love of the opening speech in the film Patton by actor George C. Scott. Nixon loved Patton. He urged aides to see the film and became, in the words of Secretary of State William Rogers, a "walking ad" for it. He screened it three times in the weeks before the US invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, an effort to undermine North Vietnamese sanctuaries in the country that followed the previous year's secret bombing campaign there.
A respected online film critic I deeply admire, James Berardinelli, who named Patton his number one film in his Top 100 films, when I brought up Nixon, said that this was a testament to the power of movies. Well, I only wish George W. Bush would have watched The Siege before or after 9/11 and been equally inspired by Washington's speech at the end of the film.