New York suffers terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists…civil liberties are compromised in order to fight the terrorists…racial profiling and hate crimes against Muslims become common…Muslims suspected of tenuous ties to the extremists are detained in military jails…enhanced interrogation methods are used… It sounds like the world since the 9/11 attacks. However, this is the plot of The Siege, a movie made in 1998 that may be one of the most prescient films ever made.
The movie is based on a story by journalist and writer Lawrence Wright. Wright is best known for “The Looming Tower,” his 2006 bestseller about Al Qaeda that won the Pulitzer Prize, though he’s currently on the bestseller charts again with “Going Clear,” an expose of Scientology and its connections to Hollywood. He worked on the screenplay for The Siege with the movie’s director, Edward Zwyck, and screenwriter Menno Meyjes. Meyjes had previously done the screenplay for The Color Purple and helped with the story of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Ed Zwyck had produced “thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life” on television before moving to the big screen, directing Glory, Legends of the Fall, and Courage Under Fire before The Siege. In the last decade Zwyck has done such movies as The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, and Love and Other Drugs. Zwyck had approached the theme of terrorism once before. In 1983 he produced and directed the excellent TV movie “Special Bulletin,” which dealt with a possible nuclear terrorist attack on Charleston, SC.
The Siege begins with the secret kidnapping of the leader of a terrorist group believed to be responsible for an attack on a Marine barracks in Saudi Arabia. The scene then switches to New York City, where Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) heads the FBI’s counterterrorism taskforce. A call comes in that an explosive package has been left on a bus in Brooklyn. Hubbard and his partner, Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub), race to the scene only to find it was a warning; the bomb was loaded with blue paint rather than explosives. Soon after a fax arrives at the FBI office that simply says, “Release him.”
A CIA operative, Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), shows up where the bus is being inspected and starts poking around. Hubbard stops her, distrusting the other agency since they’re not supposed to be operating domestically. He also puts a tail on her. A courier (Aasif Mandvi) is discovered by Customs entering the country with a suitcase full of cash, just twenty dollars under the $10,000 limit. Haddad throws a twenty onto the stacks of currency to put it over the legal amount. They release and then tail the courier to discover who’s receiving the money. The courier makes one of the FBI agents and takes off running. He gets away from Hubbard but is immediately grabbed by people driving a van without plates.
While Hubbard and his agents are regrouping, the tail on Elise calls with news she has the courier. The FBI agents raid the CIA safe house and arrest Elise and her people. But while transporting Elise back the FBI office at One Federal Plaza, a call comes in to Hubbard and Haddad. A bus has been hijacked and terrorists are holding the passengers hostage.
The Siege gets a lot right, including the idea of multiple terror cells operating independently as happened on 9/11, though rather than a coordinated blitz attack it becomes a marathon ride along a twisty, slippery path. The FBI has successes, and they also suffer horrendous losses. Then the Army steps in. The Siege also recognizes the complexity of the situation in the Middle East and its fractured nature, and that the enemies of the US today may have been our allies yesterday.
Before his breakout role as Monk, Tony Shalhoub had made a career out of playing aliens of all different backgrounds – even an actual alien in the first two Men In Black movies. The role of Haddad mirrors his own Lebanese father, who immigrated to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Shalhoub was born. He provides both dry comic relief but also the heart of the story when the fight against the terrorists turns into racial profiling and Haddad’s son is caught in a sweep. Shalhoub is, as always, excellent.
Bruce Willis plays Major General William Devereaux, an Army general who’s serving as a presidential national security advisor. 1998 was a good year for Willis, who also starred in Armageddon which was the number two film at the box office that year. He’d come off a couple of years of underperforming films, so that success was sweet, though it paled in comparison to the next year with the critical and box office success of The Sixth Sense. While the role’s a bit underwritten, he represents those who seek personal power while fighting against terrorism, as well as those with flexible ethics who justified torture after 9/11.
It’s through Annette Bening’s role as Elise that we see the complexity of the situation, as well as its tragedy. She thinks she has control over some of the players, but that illusion slowly breaks down as the movie progresses, until it’s finally shattered at the climax. It’s a powerful performance.
But the center of the film is Denzel Washington as Hubbard. He’s focused on the job at hand, but won’t compromise or cut corners to get easy answers. Early in the film, while the FBI is shadowing the courier, he’s on the phone with a judge ready to get a warrant when they find out where the courier’s headed. When Haddad strikes a suspect, Hubbard dresses him down in no uncertain terms. It’s another fine performance by Washington, in a career filled with them.
The movie didn’t do great at the domestic box office, grossing about $40 million on a budget of $70 million. However, it grossed twice that amount overseas. The film shows up on Fox Movie Channel regularly (it was produced by 20th Century Fox), and can be found on DVD, often at a bargain rate. It is well worth a viewing.
It is Hubbard who vocalizes the central conflict of the movie. “What if what (the terrorists) really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we’re doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture…we do that and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for is over. And they’ve won. They’ve already won!” It’s a conundrum this nation is still dealing with in the aftermath of 9/11.