The Siege (1998) — A lot of pre-9/11 dissonance

“It’s easy to tell the difference between right and wrong. What’s hard is choosing the wrong that’s more right.”

Al’s rating: Wearing kid gloves in a prize fight.

Al’s review: Insurgent fanatics. Terror attacks on buses and buildings. Politicians and military brass struggling with the line between the national security and personal privacy. The Patriot Act. REAL ID. Camp Casey. Code Pink. Today, these are daily headlines, familiar topics that pervade nearly every aspect of our life and have for over half a decade. It’s even difficult sometimes to remember what our personal perceptions and daily lives were like without them. But, once upon a time, in the long long ago of 1998, these things were unheard of, just exotic terms and ideas to help Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis play “what if?” in movies like The Siege.

In The Siege, Denzel Washington stars as Anthony Hubbard, an FBI agent desperately tracking a string of terrorist attacks by radical Islamists in New York City. While the clock ticks and the Big Apple starts to stew in racial tension, he finds himself stuck locking horns with other agencies who all want to bring down the perpetrators for themselves, first running up against CIA operative Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), then later Major General William Devereaux (Willis). Hubbard and his Arab partner, Frank Haddad (Tony Shaloub), have to maneuver themselves through the bureaucracy and interdepartmental politics as fast as they can, before the increasingly anxious government and public move closer to making a rash and dangerous decision.

It’s a well done piece of summertime cinema, but the world has turned quite a bit in the last nine years and what was once an interesting, semi-topical flight of fantasy has become something that, while still disturbing, is now noticeably out-of-sync with real life, relying on facts and protocols from an America that no longer exists. This is no fault of the movie, of course, it’s just distractingly outmoded by what I see as three major changes:

  1. 9/11. Duh. We’re lucky enough not to have experienced this movie’s nightmare scenario, but falling buildings and exploding buses aren’t quite as fun as they used to be.
  2. The Department of Homeland Security. The internal headbutting between the CIA and FBI that drives most of the film’s first hour wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) exist anymore in this sort of situation. The DHS has changed so much of how our government functions on these matters that a lot of what goes on between Denzel and Annette Bening just doesn’t apply.
  3. Monk. Tony Shaloub’s Emmy makes it impossible for me to take him seriously with an Arab accent. Sorry, Tone.

Now, these changes don’t stop the movie itself from working, mind you, but they do take you out of the film when you see something that just isn’t quite… right anymore. Perhaps strangest of all, the film has taken on a dimension of naiveté about its subject matter. It preaches vigilance, tolerance, and cooperation when dealing with this kind of cowardly attack, and it does so wearing its most seriousist face, but the plot and the style just doesn’t sell it the way it needs to these days.

The story bounces along briskly, hitting all the right beats and taking all the expected/unexpected twists that popcorn suspense films are designed to, but, since September 11th, it’s simply no longer good enough. The action sequences are almost jaunty in their execution and the little meet-cute flirtations between Denzel and Annette just feel disrespectful. Again, I lay no blame on the filmmakers, but it doesn’t make it any less true. It’s a movie about terrible events made by people who haven’t had to experience them but, for a long time to come, will only to be seen by those who have.

The Siege is an interesting relic from a time when only half the world would admit to hating the US and the television media shunted foreign policy to the last ten minutes of the nightly news in favor of spending more time figuring out what ‘is’ was. Way back then, this was a film that was fun and cautionary, the sort of thing you enjoyed while you watched it and that made you think enough to give you a conversation that lasted the whole car ride home. Today, it’s a piece of nostalgia that is trying it’s hardest to talk on a college level about what it only knows from high school courses.

It’s not a bad film — for what it is, it’s actually a rather good film — but we’re not those people anymore. We know more and recognize better what’s going on in the rest of the world, and have taken longer strides toward learning where we stand in it. It’s a positive thing, no doubt. A part of me, though, can’t help remembering when I saw The Siege for the first time with a smile on my face and popcorn stuck in my teeth. I can’t do that anymore.

Didja notice?

  • Denzel’s nosebleed opening back up midspeech after the bus bombing?
  • The intentionally exotic terms they toss around like ‘Sunni,’ ‘jihad,’ and ‘Qur’an?’
  • Tony Shaloub’s accent? I’m sorry, I really just can’t deal with it.

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