Reviewing the Old School: The Siege (1998)

I wonder what this film would look like if it was made now. Would the villains be the same? Would the morals be the same? Would the heroes be as black and white? This is a pre-9/11 movie about terrorism after all (set in New York no less), and we live in a post-9/11 world.

Shit, we live in a post-a-lot-of-things world.

Released all the way back in 1998 The Siege stars Denzel Washington as FBI Assistant Special Agent Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard, essentially the bloke in charge of counter-terrorism operations in New York, as he and his team (most notably Tony Shalhoub as Lebanese-American FBI agent Frank Haddad) deal with with a series of escalating attacks in throughout New York, reprisals for the kidnapping of a major religious leader by US forces at the beginning of the film. They’re helped and hindered by CIA agent Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger (starts with the former name, ends with the latter), played by Annette Benning, but as the situation grows worse, the FBI suffers casualties and they are unable to find the other terrorist cells martial law is declared and the army is sent in under the command of Major General William Devereaux.

This is not a perfect movie at all. The acting is solid and most of the characters are sympathetic if not likeable (I fucking love Tony Shalhoub, why doesn’t that guy get more roles?), with the sole exception of Annette Bening as the intruding CIA agent. She’s not bad in the role, and has some great moments, but the character comes off as whiny and annoying for most of the film, sounding for most of the movie like she’s on the verge of tears. Not great for the only female lead, even if it does play to a theme. There are some very action movie moments that are jarring against the realism that the rest of the film is trying to carry. When a bus is blown up at the beginning of the movie it is visceral and realistic. People well outside the blast range are thrown back and windows are shattered. Hub, who is halfway across the no-man’s land to the bus is far enough away that in most movies he’d usually just have to shield his eyes, is tossed around, deafened, blood vessels are ruptured (such as in his eye) and afterwards his nose begins to bleed in the middle of a briefing. It’s a good scene, and it seems weird when compared to moments later in the movie, such as when the army fucking blows up a building where Hub is trying to make an arrest. We’re talking grenades, machine guns and helicopter gunships launching hellfire missiles, and Hub making it out practically unscathed. It’s not a good scene.

Thing is though, The Siege still stands as one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to exploring terrorism and those who try to counter it. As I said, not perfect. I don’t think those of us over here in the relatively safe and peaceful west can possibly make a perfect film, but a decent one. The Islamic terrorists in the film have every right to be a bit miffed at the Americans. They were trained by the CIA to fight Saddam Hussein, then abandoned to be slaughtered. Many of them are from refugee camps and we are given the idea that the only hope many of them see for themselves and their families is through martyrdom. The attacks are triggered by the extrajudicial kidnapping of an important Islamic cleric by US forces. The film admits that the root causes of a great deal of modern terrorism can be traced back to American foreign policy (successes and failures), admits that these guys have the right to be pissed, though it never condones any of their actions. Blowing up innocent people is wrong regardless of the reasons.

It also shows the level of miscommunication and mistrust between the various branches of the American intelligence, counterintelligence and law enforcement services. Part of what makes Elise Kraft so annoying is her refusal to provide information to Hub and his team over the nature of the threat they faced or her sources. Devereaux makes a point of checking in on Hub and his team in the first half of the film, but otherwise is unwilling to share information with the FBI and, when martial law is declared, actively spies on the surviving members of the FBI. Getting information from other agencies is like pulling teeth, as they’re bounced from one organisation to another. Hub and his team still get the job done, but you get the distinct feeling that it could have been so much easier than it was.

The thing that got me about this film, however, is what it got wrong about us. Hub is a good guy. He cares about the law and judicial process. He privately berates a colleague for hitting a suspect. He waits for search warrants before assaulting a probable terrorist safe house. He believes that if you need to follow their rules to win, then you’ve already lost. Devereaux and Kraft disagree with him. They want to go in guns blazing, are willing to torture and fuck their way to the information they need. The film tells us this is bad. The film tells us, quite correctly, that this only makes things worse. The film tells us that polite society would not allow its morals to be eroded in the name of ‘safety and security.’

The film is wrong about that. At the end of the movie the combined multi-denominational might of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and whatever else protesters march upon the army lines chanting “No fear” in opposition to the Army’s detainment of thousands of young Muslim men for the crime of being young Muslim men. Hub is proved right, the law wins.

What happened in the real world? Well, Americans sacrificed many of those freedoms and protections the movie holds so dear to the Patriot Act after the Twin Towers fell. Guantanamo Bay is still open (the failure to close the prison down still stands as one of President Obama’s greatest failures). The Arab Spring seemed great at the time, but the failure of the USA and the rest of the West to follow it up with support and help has left the Middle East even messier than it already was, and ripe for an organisation like IS to become a legitimate power and threat. At home we’ve seen the rise of far-right arseholes and jingoistic nationalists, coming to power by spreading fear and anger. Extrajudicial killings and kidnappings are commonplace (just look at the Drone program or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). And remember when those American nationals were illegally arrested and sent to countries like Egypt to be tortured? Yeah, that happened.

Pop-culture since then has reflected this. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t even blink at ‘enhanced interrogation’ or assassination, and doesn’t expect the audience to either. James Bond and Jack Bauer are tasked with getting the job done outside the law. A bullet to the head fixes the problems better than due process ever did. Guys like Hub are the weak-willed scrawny pencil pushers who haven’t been through what the heroes have been through and their adherence to the rules just gets in the way.

So would a movie like The Siege be made now? Yeah. Yeah it would. But I can’t say with any certainty that it would end the same way. Be as positive or hopeful. The good guys might not win. The law might not win.

That’s a shame. I wish a few more movies were like this.

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