Friday, September 9, 2016

The Siege (1998)

It should be noted that the film was made in 1998, three years before the attack on the World Trade Center. The review was written 2016.

The Siege (Edward Zwick, 1998) Creepily omniscient film made three years before 9/11 (notice the WTC in the poster) in which terrorism comes home to roost in America, specifically with well-timed, somewhat improvised suicide bombers blowing up buses, theaters, and populous areas in the heart of New York City. Zwick (and screenwriter Lawrence Wright, with dialogue tweaks by Zwick and Menno Meyjes) showed us something that Americans didn't want to see (and believed impossible): America under terrorist attack.

No one went to see the movie, and critics attacked it as being xenophobic and unrealistic. Viewing it after 9/11, however, it feels more like reality and a step away fromappearing on the Evening News. A worst nightmare-come-true, complete with overreaction. And one of the last films to feature radical Islamists as terrorists on U.S. soil. Now, studios shy away from such depictions because, in their "infinite bravery", they're afraid of reprisals.
But, here, they weren't, not even when the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations started picketing the theaters, for the film being offensive and promoting stereotypes of Islamic terrorists.

Evidently Al Qaeda didn't get the communiques. Might've helped "the cause."
And despite some lip-service to Islam and Arab-Americans being just as aghast at terrorist activities and giving their full cooperation with the investigation—and Tony Shalhoub plays a Islamic Arab on the FBI task force—one gets the distinct impression that some of the film's best friends are Arab-Americans.  

But, that's the sideshow.  

What the film boils down to is not who's doing what to whom, but in meeting the enemy and it being ourselves. New York becomes the target of accelerating attacks when a bus is hijacked with no demands—and no explosives it turns out, the passengers are merely splattered with blue dye. The FBI's lead investigator Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) thinks it's more than a prank, or, as it's dismissed, "assault with a deadly color." He knows two things that worries him: "they" know explosives and "they" know the FBI's response time now.

Inserting herself into the investigation is Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), an NSA investigator who doesn't like to share information, as much as take it. She and Hubbard spar over jurisdiction and ownership. The FBI is new to the investigation and Elise has been at this for quite some time. "In this game, the most committed wins." While they're bickering and throwing down threats, another bus gets hijacked, and negotiations begin. But the results are different, attracting the Feds, especially the Army in the person of General Devereaux (Bruce Willis), who we have seen earlier overseeing the investigation of an Arab cleric (of whom the United States does not officially know the whereabouts). He's nosing around just to make sure that, although the NSA and FBI seem to bungling and out of their depths at this point, his operation isn't compromised. 

But, the atrocities accelerate and get bigger—The FBI's New York headquarters is attacked, resulting in 600 victims, many of them Hubbard's colleagues, and at that point, the President declares Martial Law. 

Despite his earlier protests in committee ("The Army is a broad sword, not a scalpel. Make no mistake, Senator. We will hunt down the enemy, we will find the enemy, and we will kill the enemy. And no card-carrying member of the ACLU is more dead set against it than I am. Which is why I urge you - I implore you. Do not consider this as an option. Trust me, senator - you do not want the Army in an American city.") Devereaux heads up the operation, cordoning off Brooklyn and gathering up all Arabic-speaking young men and detaining them in Yankee Stadium. Profiling isn't second-guessed, habeas is suspended, citizens are marched out to camps, and torture is the order of the day—specifically water-boarding.

Must have seemed pretty nightmarish (and xenophobic and unrealistic) in 1998. Now, that the "ethics" of water-boarding have been discussed endlessly by the cable-news pundits (to the point where I want to drown them), Guantanamo (or the more friendly "Git-mo!") has been holding prisoners for...how many years now?...we've been living with no-fly lists, and even gone to such silly extremities as taking off our shoes at airports (while "they" have gone the way of planting underwear bombs) over the last eleven...ELEVEN...years. And a lot of people have died, and Americans—loyal Americans—are coming back to a backlog of unanswered help, and we're now losing more of them to suicide (as we did in Vietnam) than to the actual war.
The crackdown will be televised
"We have met the enemy, and they are us." That was the message of The Siege and no one listened.*  And here we are, on the anniversary of 9/11, and the longest war in our history, and conflicts have not been resolved. They're only getting more complicated. The situation has gotten even more fractured, and the wars are internal as well as external, looking more like the Mexican stand-off that ends the film. 
Now, here we are, a dozen fifteen years after the fact, and there are folks amidst the current host of Syria-chatterers, who want to bomb Damascus, take out their leader, and replace him with the rebels opposing him, and in the glib words of Willis' commander "be back at base in time for the play-offs."

Trouble is, some of the factions among the rebels are Al Qaeda, who we've been fighting over these last dozen years and trillions of dollars. As the movie says "It's easy to tell the difference between right and wrong. What's hard is choosing the wrong that's more right." 


Orwell is in his grave...creating his own spin zone.




* Anthony 'Hub' Hubbard: [upon learning Devereaux's plans to torture Tariq] Are you people insane? What are you talkin' about?
General William Devereaux: The time has come for one man to suffer in order to save hundreds of lives.
Anthony 'Hub' Hubbard: One Man? What about two, huh? What about six? How about public executions?
General William Devereaux: Feel free to leave whenever you like, Agent Hubbard.
Anthony 'Hub' Hubbard: Come on General, you've lost men, I've lost men, but you - you, you *can't* do this! What, what if they don't even want the sheik, have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for is over. And they've won. They've already won!
General William Devereaux: Escort him out.

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