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The Siege

movie reviewmovie review out of 4

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

My apartment overlooks the Brooklyn Bridge on the wrong side of Manhattan so I'm accustomed to surprises...police barricades when suicide jumps are threatened, traffic jams that would stagger the imagination of even New Yorkers, marches by people on all sides of the political spectrum. But nothing quite prepared me for the shock of discovering U.S. troops marching across the link between the two boroughs, with tanks rolling in from the area in which Adams Street meets High Street just to the east of the overpass. Has it finally happened? Are we experiencing the first coup d'etat in U.S. history? "Just a movie," my more collected neighbor assured me, "Just a movie."

And what a movie! Plenty of action, briskly paced, with lots of firepower, a couple of car chases, exploding buildings, choppers, and of course the ultimate battle--not between the U.S. and its external enemies but between rival U.S. agencies. Denzel Washington, the great crowd-pleaser who will likely make "The Siege" number one in the first weekend's box office, is easily the big reason to see the movie. He gets to stand up for the Bill of Rights, a good deal of the rest of the U.S. Constitution, and for the rights of Brooklynites of Red Hook, Borough Hall, and Cobble Hill to walk the streets at midnight if they so desire without being confronted by half the tanks in the army's stockpile.

Plot-wise, however, "The Siege" is messy. Edward Zwick directs the picture from a screenplay written by a committee of three without much thought of a center. New York City appears to be under a siege in a series of terrorist attacks not experienced since the Oklahoma City bombing. It becomes clear from the beginning that the trouble is being caused by Arab extremist groups, just twenty criminals in all, who make no demands but who are intent on blowing up themselves and as many others as they can get for the benefit of the TV cameras. In one case they release a group of young kids from a bus before blasting it simply because FBI Agent Anthony "Hub" Hubbard asks them to do so. In yet another situation a suicide bomber crashes his van into a federal building in downtown Manhattan killing six hundred people. Though Hub pulls off some daring arrests and manages to destroy some of our nation's enemies before than can do further damage, the president believes things have gotten entirely out of hand and declares martial law in New York City, authorizing General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis) to send tanks into the streets of Brooklyn, to enforce a curfew, and to round up scores of suspects for placement in a camp similar to those used by the U.S. government against Japanese-Americans in the early forties. Masses of people, infuriated by the abridgment of constitutional liberties, take to the streets. In a that seems inspired by consultants from the American Civil Liberties Union, the army and particularly its commander, Devereaux, become the bad guys while the FBI and to a lesser extent the CIA come up smelling of roses.

The one problematic character in the whole piece is Sharon Bridger, aka Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), an attractive, forty- something CIA agent who gains information largely by sleeping with the enemy. I'd challenge the experts from Columbia University's department of Middle East studies to figure out just where she stands on the politics of the situation. Surely the typical member of the movie's audience will draw a blank trying to calculate a pattern. At times she even seems as though she is siding with our adversaries. Sure, she explains the usual predicament of U.S. foreign policy, which is that this country often sides with the wrong guys. (We sided with the mujahadeen against the Russian interlopers in Afghanistan. Now we condemn the Afghan Taliban movement while we throw money at the Russians. We even once helped Saddam Hussein during his struggle with the Iranians!) But just what information has she obtained from her nighttime encounters with these terrorists? And why is blowing hot and cold, so to speak, with Special Agent Hubbard?

Tony Shalhoub turns in a good performance as a Lebanese-American who works with the FBI but who threatens to turn in his badge when his son is arrested and incarcerated as a potential terrorist. Annette Bening looks charming throughout, if as confused as the audience. And Bruce Willis's role is underwritten and predictable. See the movie for Denzel, though, and watch the fireworks throughout. But don't expect to cheer when the U.S. Army gets its comeuppance from the FBI. Nothing in this convoluted plot makes us exercise our propensity for movie- theater self-righteousness.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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