Fox // 2004 // 265 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // April 13th, 2005
Global mission. United force.
The Grid was a six-part miniseries broadcast on TNT in 2004 and co-produced by TNT, the BBC, and Fox. That slightly odd pedigree makes sense given its focus on terrorism, and its international cast and locations. Comparisons to 24 (a Fox show) are inevitable, but the more reasonable timelines and less U.S.-centric approach of The Grid -- and the related inclusion of so many lovely British accents and shots of London -- made me think more of MI-5 (a BBC show).
After a botched terrorist plot releases deadly sarin gas in a London hotel, the British national security service (MI5) and secret intelligence service (MI6) fear future attacks on the London and New York subway systems. But it starts to look like that might be a diversion from the real target.
An international counter-terrorism team is formed to investigate and eliminate the threat: Maren Jackson (Julianna Margulies, ER) of the National Security Agency, Max Canary (Dylan McDermott, The Practice) of the FBI, Raza Michaels (Piter Marek) of the CIA, and, from the other side of the Atlantic, Derek Jennings (Bernard Hill, Lord of the Rings) of MI5 and Emily Tuthill (Jemma Redgrave, Bramwell) of MI6. Territoriality between nations and agencies makes their jobs more difficult, as do their complicated personal lives. Jackson's boyfriend, Hudson Benoit (James Rebar, Sex and the City) may be involved in the intrigue, while Canary suffers guilt after losing his best friend in the World Trade Center attacks and then falling in love with his widow and raising his son.
The head of the terrorist group is a shadowy figure known only as Mohammed (Alki David). He and his followers are referred to as a lunatic fringe split off from Al Queda, so we know they must be evil incarnate. However, The Grid doesn't paint all the participants with the same fanatical brush. Of the various terrorists the story follows, the most sympathetic is doctor Raghib Mutar (Silas Carson), whose idealism and desperate need for clinic supplies eventually draws him into the violence. One of the least sympathetic is Chechan-American college student Kaz Moore (Barna Morcz), whose blond hair and blue eyes let him escape the scrutiny suffered by fellow Muslim Americans.
The Grid is an ambitious 4 ½-hour series populated with a slew of recognizable names and faces from television of the past several years. Tom Skerritt (Picket Fences) is Acton Sandman, the blowhard deputy director of the CIA, who threatens to disband the anti-terrorist team. Robert Forster (Karen Sisco) is a politician and confidante of Jackson, and Paula Devicq (Party of Five) is Canary's girlfriend. Even the producer credits reveal a familiar television name: Joshua Brand of St. Elsewhere and Northern Exposure.
Unfortunately, even these seasoned actors don't always fare well with the script's dialogue, which veers from overly expository in an attempt to explain the complicated plot, to hard-boiled humor that doesn't quite hit the mark (for example, this zinger from Sandman to Michaels: "Get yourself a shovel and dig a hole. You're dead here."). Margulies in particular struggles to sound natural when spouting her jargon-laden speeches, and the commentary she provides on selected scenes reveals that she felt the struggle that shows onscreen.
Fortunately, this is a plot-driven film, and for the most part, it zooms along and doesn't linger on words. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and they're not always well differentiated, but some stand out. While Margulies and McDermott are disappointingly wooden, saddled with stiff characters, the doctor turned terrorist is compelling and MI5's Jennings offers low-key intensity and humor. (After Tuthill gives Jennings a dressing-down, Canary says: "If I'm not mistaken, she just cut off your balls, Derek." Jennings replies: "Just the one, Max. Just the one.") Newcomer Marek is hugely appealing as the Muslim CIA agent, as is Redgrave as the tough and flirty MI6 agent. I could have done without their budding romance, but the diversions into the characters' personal lives is part of the heavy-handed (but not completely ineffective) attempt to make us care about these characters. What's at stake goes beyond the impersonal death and destruction of vaguely defined citizens.
The multiple plotlines and points of view show terrorism and intelligence work from many sides, female and male, British and American, Muslim and Christian. The bad guys aren't cartoon figures, but reasonably fleshed-out characters with back story and charisma. Besides its relation to the obvious spy-themed television shows, this series has a kinship with the Traffic style of storytelling too.
The Grid doesn't make the mistake of trying for absolute political correctness, and in fact pushes a lot of hot buttons without hammering at them -- among them, homegrown American terrorism, the Michigan militia, the porous Canadian border, and what it means to be Muslim-American in a post-9/11 world.
There's nothing particularly new in The Grid's exploration of terrorism, but it offers a good integration of ideas without always resorting to the usual plot progressions we might expect. There are clichés storming all over the screen -- Skerritt's bad-good guy CIA director, the inter-agency and international pissing matches, the brooding FBI agent with a personal stake in the issue -- but there are nice escapes from cliché as well, especially in avoiding the "Yanks save the day" approach. The Brits are equal partners here, and not eager to support the Americans if it means finding themselves yet again holding "a big bag of poop" -- in the delightful words of MI6's Tuthill.
One weakness of the series, apparent even to someone who doesn't speak the language, is that while it tries to present a realistic picture by having actors speak Arabic with English subtitles, these scenes often come across awkwardly as the actors struggle with a language neither they nor the director understood. It's the same problem as the technical dialogue the actors struggle with, but at its root is the well-meaning but limiting attempt to portray all sides of the issue without Arabic-speaking actors or input from credible consultants.
A particularly blatant scene was overdubbed so the actor's mouth movements do not at all match the words coming from it. Director Mikael Salomon explains in the commentary that they discovered the original dialogue was considered blasphemous, so it was changed in post-production. The pat explanations of Islam and motivations of the sympathetic terrorist characters are an extension of this lack of participation by anyone with inside knowledge, and the series loses some credibility because of it. The Grid deserves points for the effort to be comprehensive and realistic, though, even if it doesn't quite succeed.
The features offered on this two-disc set include a few featurettes, a commentary by director Mikael Salomon and executive producer Tracey Alexander on hours three and four, scene-specific commentaries by Dylan McDermott and Julianna Margulies, and deleted scenes. These extras offer insight into the logistics of creating a sweeping miniseries, and the budget and timing problems that plagued the producers and contributed to some of the problems we see onscreen. Still, given that some action sequences had to be abandoned, and Toronto, London, and Morocco had to stand in for a number of other international locations, The Grid is a remarkably polished-looking production. McDermott and Margulies leave a lot of dead air in their commentaries, but the featurettes are enlightening.
For a television production, The Grid makes a good-looking DVD, presented in 1:78:1 with sharp picture quality, realistic colors, and strong contrast. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix isn't as effective as you'd expect from a theatrical release, but the various explosions, screams, chases, and ambient sounds are conveyed nicely in the surrounds.
The continued existence of both 24 and MI-5 is one of the main drawbacks of this miniseries. They're not only similar to The Grid, they're better, and available at no additional cost directly to my home through the magic of television. However, The Grid is decent entertainment wrapped in a decent DVD presentation, and worth a look for fans of the genre.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 265 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Director, writer, and actor commentaries
* Deleted scenes
* Three featurettes
* TNT official site