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Siege Mentality

[whitespace] The Siege

Edward Zwick's action flick raises the specter of military fascism

By Michelle Goldberg

THE SCARIEST SCENE in The Siege isn't the one in which an Arab terrorist holds an elementary school classroom hostage, nor is it the one in which a van full of explosives goes crashing through a plate-glass window into the lobby of the New York City FBI building. No, the film's most frightening moments are shots of American soldiers marching across the Brooklyn Bridge and scenes of young Arab men being rounded up and sent to makeshift internment camps. Instead of the chest-beating nationalism indicated by early trailers for the film, the real threat in The Siege is as much militaristic fascism as it is Muslim fanaticism.

The film's political mindset resembles that of The X-Files, with heroic and ethical FBI agents who must stand up to both CIA spooks in bed with the enemy and a thickheaded army hostile to individual human rights. We first meet FBI agents Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) and Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub) as they respond to a bomb threat in a bus. At first, it looks like a prank, but it soon proves to be a test run for the real thing. As Hubbard and Haddad investigate, they keep running into the charming but shady Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), a CIA agent with a history in the Middle East.

Soon, terrorist violence in Manhattan is escalating wildly. Every time the FBI think it's eliminated the terrorist cell, the attacks get even larger and more audacious.

In the face of an overwhelmed FBI, the President decides to send in the army under the command of Gen. William Devereaux (Bruce Willis). Initially Devereaux resists, but all traces of ambiguity vanish once he gets to Gotham and unleashes stormtrooper tactics that include torture and murder. Haddad's son is dragged out of the family's apartment and imprisoned just for being Lebanese. Soon, the battle is between Hubbard, with his reverence for the law and Constitutional liberties, and Devereaux's army.

More interesting than Willis' character is Bening, who, unlike most actresses in action films, actually looks old enough to be a high-ranking CIA agent. Her Elise is warm, clever, and unafraid to use sex to get what she wants from informants. Some of Kraft's mistakes are catastrophic and her judgment is occasionally clouded by sentiment, yet she's also strong, smart and brave. With her guilt, integrity and divided sympathies, Kraft is neither heroine nor villain.

Like Wag the Dog, The Siege has alarming parallels in current events, coming just months after the embassy bombings in Kenya. Zwick ratchets up the audience's anxiety by including movie theaters as targets. In one scene, an Arab Studies professor who is Kraft's lover and informant, recalls how his brother went to a Tel Aviv cinema with bombs strapped to his chest. Zwick shows admirable restraint in allowing the suspense to build relatively slowly, but it's the film's convincing tangle of moral ambiguities that elevates The Siege above the grunting stupidity of most big-budget action fare.

The Siege (R), directed by Edward Zwick, written by Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes and Edward Zwick, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis and Tony Shalhoub.

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From the November 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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