Siege, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's not hard to argue that Edward Zwick is one of the best Hollywood film makers toiling in obscurity. Although the average movie-goer recognizes the names of directors like Scorsese, Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Stone, Zwick is relatively unknown. His name will not sell tickets, but his work speaks for itself: Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage under Fire. Even his unsuccessful ventures, such as Leaving Normal (a road trip movie with Meg Tilley and Christine Lahti), have been interesting failures. Nevertheless, most people seeing The Siege will be there because of Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis, Annette Bening, or a provocative ad campaign. But those few who go in anticipation of another fine outing by Zwick will not be disappointed. This is one of the best films of the year to be released by a major studio.

With a grim realism and a slow progression of events that seems entirely plausible, The Siege postulates what might happen if an American city becomes the target of international terrorists. This is not a unique motion picture scenario, but Zwick's approach is new. Typically, this premise is used as a springboard for an action adventure flick -- an opportunity for Steven Seagal to use his martial arts, George Clooney to flash his pearly whites, or 007 to save the world. Not here. Despite one early car chase and the presence of Bruce Willis, this is not that kind of movie. The Siege is a thriller, to be sure, but it's a thinking person's thriller, where pyrotechnics give way to plot, character development supplants fight scenes, and adrenaline does not short-circuit intelligence.

The setting is New York City, one of the most likely (and vulnerable) American targets for terrorism. When a special branch of the United States military, under the command of General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), takes prisoner suspected terrorist mastermind Sheik Ahmed Bin Talal, Islamic fundamentalists across the world take notice. The only warning the FBI receives is a single, cryptic message: "Release him." Then all hell breaks loose in New York. A bus is destroyed, killing 25 civilians. A Broadway theater is bombed. Hostages are taken at a school. As the wave of terrorist activity crests, the President must consider if the only way to save the city and break the grip of fear is to declare martial law. Devereaux argues against that eventuality, but is nevertheless ready to lead 10,000 men into action on American soil.

Another person not in favor of martial law is Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington), the FBI agent in charge of investigating the terrorist activities. His staff is comprised of smart, energetic, intelligent men and women very much unlike the usual group of moronic Feds we're used to seeing in movies. Hubbard develops an uneasy alliance with CIA agent Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), whose department knows more about the situation than they're willing to reveal. Yet, as the twin threats of a catastrophic terrorist action and the implementation of martial law grow greater, Hubbard finds that time is against him.

One of the reasons that The Siege works so well is that a lot is going on simultaneously, both on the surface and just beneath it. In addition to the FBI's investigation, considerable time is spent exploring the distrustful relationships that exist between various segments of the U.S. government (namely, the army, the FBI, and the CIA). This is not an attempt at a "tell all" expose of what goes into a government cover-up, but a look at the complexities inherent when so many secrets and lies are involved. The Siege also examines (albeit superficially) the potential for the abuse of power when the Constitution is suspended. The Palestinian community in 1998 New York is treated exactly as Japanese Americans were during World War II. There are concentration camps and unlawful internments, all in the name of the "greater good." And there's a horrifyingly ironic twist that illustrates the old cliché about the chickens coming home to roost.

One notable flaw keeps The Siege from being a four-star movie. During the last fifteen minutes, the film becomes preachy. Denzel Washington turns into a mouthpiece for the merits of freedom, law, and justice. These ideas are implicit in each frame of the movie and in every action that Washington's Hubbard takes -- we don't need everything spelled out in a series of short sermons. The drama in the film's final confrontation (the one after the climax) is not enhanced by this approach.

Both the primary and supporting players are effectively cast. Denzel Washington is the perfect choice for the law abiding but driven Hubbard. Washington has the range to be both heroic and vulnerable, making his character believable and sympathetic rather than merely superhuman. Annette Bening gives Elise the right level of motivation -- energetic without being too perky -- and a keen, worldly intellect. Finally, Bruce Willis (who is often underrated as an actor because he appears in so many "popcorn flicks") turns out a fine, controlled performance as an antagonist who's not really a villain. Willis' Devereaux isn't likable, but it's not difficult to understand his motives, which, although misguided, are laudable. Standout members of the supporting cast include Tony Shalhoub as Frank Haddad, Hubbard's Islamic partner; Sami Bouajila as Samir, one of Elise's inside contacts; and David Proval as a key Presidential aide.

The Siege is many things at once: tense, exciting, disturbing, and thought provoking. Zwick uses every element at his command -- fine performances, effective special effects, substantial location shooting, and a well-written script -- to craft a compelling movie that keeps the audience in thrall. Many of The Siege's plot twists are actually surprising, and this is a rare motion picture that justifies a two hour running length. With The Siege, Zwick can add another highlight to a short-but-scintillating resume.

Siege, The (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 1998-11-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1