The Siege (1998)
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Premise: A series of terrorist attacks on New York City lead to a clamp down on civil liberties and eventually to the declaration of martial law.
What Works: Terrorism is not a new subject for motion pictures. Action films have dealt with the topic for decades but usually as an excuse for escapist shoot ’em up movies. When Hollywood films dramatize terrorism, the action usually takes place overseas and the villains are confronted and defeated by a lone hero or an elite squad. In a few other cases the action takes place on American soil but here too the same formula is followed and rarely do the effects of terrorism—the trauma on the population or the political repercussions—ever get dramatized. Filmmaker Edward Zwick has made those kinds of movies such as Blood Diamond and Defiance and he is a very capable director of action movies. But in 1998 Zwick helmed The Siege, a film that dealt with terrorism and its effects on the culture and its story was remarkably prescient for the post-September 11th era. The movie concerns not one attack but a pattern of bombings across New York City perpetuated by cells of radical Islamic terrorists. Where the movie is most impressive is in the way that it captures how terrorism can destabilize a community and how the attempt to restore security shreds civil liberties and ultimately transforms the culture. The filmmakers utilize imagery from events like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing but they also duplicate familiar images from news reports of places under military occupation. That gives The Siege a reality that is unnerving and gives the descent from democracy to military occupation a lot of credibility. The Siege is led by Denzel Washington as the head of the FBI’s Counter-Terrorism Task Force in New York. This is the kind of authority figure that Washington does well but when he’s cast in action movies Denzel Washington tends to be unflappable. In The Siege his character is frustrated and overwhelmed by terrorism and later by the institutional response of government and national security forces. Washington’s character is paired with a CIA operative played by Annette Bening. She is the most interesting character in the film. Bening’s character is a manipulator but she also has empathy for the people she manipulates to the point that it compromises her ability to do her job. Tony Shalhoub is cast in a supporting role as an Arab-American FBI agent whose family gets swept up the military’s occupation and interrogation. It’s an important role and Shalhoub brings a lot of humanity to the picture.
What Doesn’t: The greatest weakness of The Siege is its ending. The movie rushes through the climax and ties up its loose ends a little too neatly. The military general played by Bruce Willis is an emerging antagonist; he initially protests the deployment of military personnel into the streets of New York City but when he’s given the order he carries out his duties to their full effect. That makes him an interesting character with an arc but his corruption goes too far too fast. The moviemakers include a framing device in the form of an abducted Iraqi cleric. This is intended to pull the various parts of the story together but it creates too many coincidences to be credible and it simplifies the story, creating an excuse to wrap up the conflict. The movie also misses some opportunities for nuance in New Yorker’s reception of military occupation. The movie imagines resentment and resistance but the armed forces are revered in American life and so the anger directed at the military by the citizenry isn’t entirely believable. It may be that the concept of The Siege would have been better executed as a television series than as a feature film.
DVD extras: The DVD edition includes a commentary track, featurettes, and a trailer. The Blu-ray edition only includes a trailer.
Bottom Line: The Siege is an effective and intelligent terrorism thriller. Although much more could be done with the material, the film does an impressive job of exploring the political and human costs of terrorism and our response to it.
Episode: #586 (March 13, 2016)