'The Siege' is about more than 'us-vs.-terrorists'

November 06, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"The Siege," which has Islamic terrorists causing chaos in New York, has already been decried by Arab and Islamic groups who fear it will fan the flames of prejudice and mistrust.

But director Edward Zwick's real targets are the politicians and law enforcers fighting them. Zwick and co-screenwriters Lawrence Wright and Menno Meyjes are asking: Can a free society exist when it's under attack by a group pledged to destroy it?

The answer is ultimately ambiguous, because the film turns on one of Hollywood's favorite cop-outs: people who do the right thing, even when doing so is totally out of character.

Which is not to say "The Siege" is a bad film. It's suspenseful, wonderfully acted and as unsettling as any political thriller since "The Manchurian Candidate."

"The Siege" posits a United States where the 1993 terrorist bombing of New York's World Trade Center was only the beginning. In this New York, Middle-Eastern terrorists are carrying out a full-scale war.

Denzel Washington is Anthony Hubbard, head of an FBI/New York Police terrorism unit charged with stopping the attacks. His efforts are alternately aided and hindered by Annette Bening as a CIA operative who fears he's hopelessly outmatched.

Making matters worse, Hubbard has a sword hanging over his head: Army Gen. William Devereaux (Bruce Willis). As Devereaux makes plain, putting New York under his control won't be pretty; he'll start by declaring martial law and rounding up every Middle-Eastern male in Brooklyn.

Hubbard, ineffectual as he seems, stands as the voice of reason; don't fight the bad guys, he keeps shouting, by throwing out the Constitution.

The first half of "The Siege" is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between Hubbard and the terrorists, and it's the best part of the film. Washington's finest moments are when he's wrestling with his conscience. He knows he's losing the battle but hates the idea of what it might take to win.

Bening turns in her usual solid effort as a CIA operative who's been playing the game too long. And Willis' Devereaux, while the least intriguing character, is given the film's best speech, as he warns the decision-makers against giving him the power he craves.

"The Siege" is about the conflict between order and disorder, between doing what's right and doing what's expedient. If audiences see it only as an us-vs.-them thing, with "them" being anyone of Arab descent, they'll miss a pretty good film.

'The Siege'

Directed by Edward Zwick

Starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated R (for violence, language and brief nudity)

Running time: 113 minutes

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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