When this film was released in 1998, the topic of Islamic-inspired terrorism and how American law enforcement, the intelligence community, and the military would respond to – or even be aware of – a series of escalating attacks in the United States was somewhat idealistic and based on serious misconceptions and wishful notions.
After all, up until then the most serious attempt to strike full-blooded terror in the American consciousness had been the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, and very few people outside the Pentagon, the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, or Central Intelligence Agency HQ in Langley, Virginia knew who Osama Bin-Laden was and what his extremist agenda for the Islamic world really entailed.
Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire), working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Lawrence Wright and Menno Meyjes, was probably aiming to give moviegoers a serious and thoughtful thriller that explored the possible consequences of a major terrorist campaign by jihadists hell-bent on gaining the release of a radical cleric based on the Sheik who was accused of inspiring the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
What would happen, Zwick and his collaborators ask, if a chain of gruesome bombings took place in New York City? Would the FBI and CIA be able to cooperate efficiently? Would an entire religious minority be seen with suspicion and fear, as the Japanese-Americans once had been after Pearl Harbor? Would the use of American military forces in a huge metropolis like New York City be a boon to homeland security, or would it be the death knell of democracy as we now know it?
In order to elevate The Siege from a simplistic action-adventure with lots of big explosions and choreographed shootouts, the screenplay attempts to mix serious drama, idealistic questions about ethics, and a painful effort to make everyone – from Denzel Washington’s stalwart FBI special agent Anthony “Hub” Hubbard to the various Islamic jihadists – somewhat sympathetic, even the somewhat shady Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger, a CIA case officer whose relationship with one of the terrorists is ambiguously too intimate.
The basic story of The Siege centers on the aftermath of the capture by American special forces of Sheik Achmed Bin Talal (Ahmed Ben Larby) somewhere in the Middle East. Enraged by this “provocation,” his followers begin a concerted campaign of terrorist attacks in the Big Apple, starting with a false alarm involving a city bus and a “bomb” full of blue paint; this is clearly both a warning to the authorities and a trial run for the terrorists, who want to test the American reaction by both the cops and the media.
Hubbard, the special agent who heads the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Task Force in New York, is assigned to work on this case, and along with his Lebanese-American partner Frank Haddad (Monk star Tony Shalhoub), he’s forced to join forces with the somewhat shady Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) as the terror cells within the Big Apple make the violent transition from mere demonstration to actual bloodshed.
As more bombs go off in the streets of New York (including an attack on One Federal Plaza, where Hubbard’s FBI office is located, increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration (the film was set in what was then “present day” and even features a clip of an actual speech by the former President), Major General William Deveraux (Bruce Willis) and an entire infantry division are sent to “pacify” the city and attempt to prevent more attacks by isolating almost all of New York’s Muslim population.
Unfortunately, in order to make the film’s tagline (On November 6th our freedom is history…) “come true” on the screen, TheSiege goes into two extremes in storytelling.
First, it portrays interagency cooperation between the FBI and the CIA as an efficient if somewhat grudging example of teamwork to thwart the terrorists. Obviously this is pure Hollywood, since it is now known, thanks to the 9/11 Commission Report, that the notion of good communications between the two rival agencies before the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington was just that, a notion. In reality (rather than “reel life”), the close collaboration between Hub and Elise wouldn’t have been possible in 1998, since each agency guarded its “turf” with bureaucratic jealousy and competition for Congressional funding.
Second, it makes the American military, personified by Willis’ Gen. Deveraux, the film’s most negative entity after the terrorists. In The Siege, the Army is not seen as a force of mostly good men and women assigned to carry out a thankless but somehow necessary mission, but more like an unwelcome occupying force.
Even worse, Deveraux undergoes a “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde” personality switch in the film’s third and climactic act; where he was first a thoughtful officer who is reluctant to even consider the deployment of troops into New York City, he then morphs into a too-gung-ho-for-anyone’s-good martinet who is willing to carry out all sorts of nasty things, including the torture of an Arab-American citizen in a sequence that seems to foreshadow the Abu Ghraib scandal of recent Iraq War vintage.
I know war is a brutal business and that it has a markedly negative effect on most soldiers, but to have Willis shift from imploring the civilians in Congress and the White House to not use the Army to combat terrorists at home to being the film’s true villain simply is far too ridiculous and smacks of far-left liberal bias.
Perhaps the only realistic aspect of The Siege is the depiction of how fearful everyone suddenly becomes of America’s growing Muslim population, especially after the big attack on One Federal Plaza. Here, Zwick’s film draws an eerie parallel to the mood right after December 7, 1941 in Hawaii and on the West Coast, when the Japanese-American community was unfairly treated as hostile and placed in desolate detention centers such as Camp Manzanar.
The Siege foreshadowed some of the public attitude toward Muslims in the U.S. after 9/11 by showing the fear, mistrust, and anger that follows the various terrorist acts.
Washington, who has worked with Zwick in various films, is a terrific actor who manages to portray Hub as a dedicated FBI agent who is both competent and compassionate. Also very likeable is Tony Shalhoub, who will be torn by his duties as an FBI agent and the natural angst of a father whose son is unfairly imprisoned by Deveraux’s troops in a massive roundup of Muslims. In fact, I can’t really complain about the acting, since the film’s main weakness is the somewhat uneven screenplay.
Denzel Washington…Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard
Annette Bening…Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger
Bruce Willis…Major General William Devereaux
Tony Shalhoub…Agent Frank Haddad