Judge Brendan Babish is surprised there's a movie that makes Dick Cheney seem like a dove.
Our review of The Siege, published May 15th, 1999, is also available.
On November 6th our freedom is history.
The Siege is a cautionary tale about terrorist activity in New York City, and the resulting government overreach leading to curtailed civil liberties such unconstitutional detention and torture (or "enhanced interrogation techniques," in the current parlance). The film's three leads all represent popular, but competing, views on how to combat terrorism: FBI agent Anthony "Hub" Hubbell (Denzel Washington, He Got Game) is an idealist, refusing to sacrifice American values even if it saves lives; CIA operative Elise Kraft (Annette Benning, The American President) is an expert on the Middle East, which causes her to sympathize with Arab causes, though she is still willing to go over the line if necessary; U.S. Army Major General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis, Die Hard) sees protecting America as his No. 1 priority, and if a couple Arabs have to be tortured—and several thousand innocent Arabs have to be incarcerated—to achieve that objective, so be it.
Surprisingly, the film was made in 1998, which makes its screenwriter, Lawrence Wright—who has since won a Pulitzer Prize for his research into the history of al Qaeda—almost clairvoyant. Still, as impressive as Wright's foresight is, he manages to get enough details wrong that the movie's similarity to real life becomes a liability, not an asset.
The problem is, it's nearly impossible to watch The Siege through the lens in which it was created: as an abstract defense of civil liberties in the face of terrorism. Over the past eight years, in post-9/11 America, we have seen the extent to which our freedoms have been curtailed (very mild compared to The Siege), and we have been debating the appropriateness and effectiveness of these curtailments ad infinitum. In light of that, this movie has very little to say about contemporary America—bar a powerful and eloquent speech by Hub on the morality of torture.
That said, Hub's speech, and so much of the film, seems contrived. Wright clearly has an agenda to push in writing the film and—no matter how sympathetic you are to his message—the drama suffers for his lack of subtlety. I am sympathetic to the Herculean task of depicting a country's descent into paranoia and struggle for redemption in two hours, but shoehorning in an evil general (who for some reason wasn't given a mustache to twirl) and ominous shots of soldiers marching across the Brooklyn Bridge doesn't do the film any favors. While the movie deserves credit for attempting to insert a conscience into an action film, it does a disservice to both, with few thrills and surprisingly little to say about the current debate on civil liberties.
As for the film's debut on Blu-ray, the good news is the picture and sound are shockingly pristine. Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai) is one of the best modern directors at staging a gorgeous epic film. While The Siege is hardly in that class, it boasts a gorgeous portrait of New York City, in particular the gritty Brooklyn borough. You can almost see each individual layer of smog that's staining the brownstones and bodegas, giving the city character and grit. The action scenes are also startlingly vivid, with bright orange fireballs and a perfect contrast in the night scenes between the varying hues of black.
The sound is also impressive. There are several scenes involving gunfire, explosions, and large crowds (sometimes all three!), and with all five speakers pumping you feel like you're in the middle of a war zone—or, perhaps just a city under martial law. Though I was aware I was watching a movie, I still felt my body tense up several times, in a subconscious response to the panic going on all around me. This is a soundtrack that makes me appreciate having surround sound.
Unfortunately, the Blu-ray contains no extras save for a trailer. This is especially disappointing, since Wright has become a world-renowned expert on terrorism, and it would be fascinating to hear him discuss how his views have changed or been altered since writing The Siege. Alas, we have nothing but a gaping hole.
Guilty of being heavy on message and short on movie.
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