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Monday, February 17, 2003

Under The Siege

This is going to be a review---not of a movie, but of movie reviews.

Last night, NRO's Rod Dreher stumbled across The Siege playing on USA Network.

I've never seen this movie. I don't even remember hearing about it (but it was almost five years ago). I grew curious about what IMDB's "user comments" had to say about the movie, before September 11.

Since I haven't seen the film, I'm going to have to rely on their comments to work out plot points. If you haven't seen it either, and want to be surprised, you might want to GO AWAY NOW. Apparently, the kidnapping of a terrorist leader (these are Muslim/Arab terrorists, we'll establish right up front) provokes a string of terrorist attacks in New York, each one more deadly than the last. Finally, twenty terrorists are known to be at large in the city, so martial law is declared and all young Arab males are rounded up and detained.

The army, apparently, is portrayed as being full of mindless, out-of-control thugs. The FBI are what passes for good guys, and at one point, if I understand correctly, the FBI arrests the army. Yeah. Finally, there seems to be a death scene which, had I seen it in the theater, would have had me laughing out loud in derision.

Now, many, many people said that they were intrigued by the first half of the movie (probably the terrorist phase), but thought it went to hell in the last half. The criticisms boiled down to two basic types:

1) I thought this was going to be an intelligent study of terrorism and reaction to it, but it was just a dumb shoot-em-up.

2) I thought this was going to be an action movie, but then it had to get all preachy and profound n shit, and it insulted my intelligence.

Many people mentioned the controversy surrounding the film, the allegations that it was racist. Most of those said they believed that the movie was not racist, and some said it bent over backwards to assert that most American Muslims were peace-loving, etc.

That wasn't enough for this fellow, from Calgary:

Date: 8 June 1999
Summary: Hollywood pours more gasoline on the bonfire of hatred and ignorance.

Don't get me wrong...I liked the movie...My problem with the film is this: It paints an all too common misconception about Islam, Arabs, and their beliefs. Like many of the other [reviewers], I was able to take a step back and say, "All Arabs are not terrorists". How many other moviegoers in North America can make that distinction? Hollywood and our news media use propaganda every day to give us distorted views of society.

Why not round up all the Arabs working on Wall Street as brokers or lawyers? Because Hollywood tells us most terrorists are of low income, living in mostly ethnic areas (Brooklyn, in this case). More stereotypes.

So, in otherwords, Mr. Tolerance here is perfectly able to handle this work of fiction without wanting to go out and blow up a mosque, but the rest of us knuckle-dragging, grunting, racist pigs are not. Oh, and it's Hollywood which tells us that terrorists are oppressed, and poverty-crushed. I was sure I'd read that in the Guardian

A lot of the comments were from foreigners---in fact, they seemed to outnumber the Americans in the pre-9/11 comments (I didn't look at the post-9/11 comments, although I did note that three people felt impelled to post comments on 9/11 itself). Another Canadian thinks that this has given the film a fairer hearing:

Date: 19 June 1999
Summary: What if....

At first glance, The Siege looks to be a flag waving, hero's are us kind of American patriot film. But upon further review, and if you honestly give this movie a chance and listen to what it has to say, you'll see that it wants us to listen, it wants us to learn and it wants us to just look at the possibilities of " what if? ".


The positive reviews that have been in the IMDb have been, at least a great many of them, from people that are nationalities other than American. And perhaps the reason for that is that we can sit back and look at the U.S. from afar and it may be easier for us ( as non Americans ) to understand more clearly what this movie is trying to say. And it may be easier for us ( whatever nationality we happen to be ) to understand what is wrong with America and why a film like this is just trying to give one possible reason for the decay of American society. That is not to say that our own countries don't have problems, because they do, but we can just see what is wrong with America a little easier, we are not blinded by our own patriotism.

This after 88 previous reviews, of which perhaps two extremely short ones took exception to how the army was portrayed. The other unfavorable reviews focussed more on things like the writing, the acting, the implausibilities of the plot, and the state of Annette Bening's hair.

Thank you, Mr. Canadian, for your clear-eyed view of the black maggoty sludge which American society has become. I hope we don't soil your snowy-white saints' robes as we dissolve into obscurity.

Some other Americans don't need that last fellow's condescension, however, they already know we are evil beyond repair:

Date: 22 February 2000
Summary: Good moral, Great Acting, Bad Plot.

I liked the attempt at showing how egotistical and racist we Americans can be, which is something we should be ashamed of...

Thank you, sir. You are excused from one hour of Ritual Self-Flagellation.

This fellow is excused from two hours of RSF:

Date: 25 June 2000
Summary: Missing the Issue

Judging by many user comments on this site, this movie is sorely misunderstood. Just take a deep breath, and say slowly:


It isn't. Neither is it about Islam. It's about Americanism. The "siege" refers to the premature martial-law declaration. The fact that the terrorists are Muslim is peripheral to the movie's message.

The point of the movie is that we Americans can get very scared and closed-minded, and when mob mentality sets in, we can get neurotic. We're simplistic in how we deal with world problems (i.e., "Hussein's a spoothead, so let's bomb and sanction Iraq."). And for those who think the racist gathering-up of all Muslims into that stadium is unrealistic, remember what we did to the Japanese Americans in World War II - in exaggerated terms, our own little holocaust.

I believe this is my favorite comment. I especially appreciate the sophisticated grasp he has of our foreign policy: "Hussein's a spoothead, so let's bomb and sanction Iraq." (Note to State: We're falling behind on our spoothead bombing.)

Moving onward, this anonymous Candian understands all about root causes:

Date: 15 June 1999
Summary: An important movie that has received unjust criticism

This film goes above and beyond the call of duty to show that not all Arabs are bad people. Now having said all that, what it does say is not only important, it is a theory that I happen to agree with. And if Americans can stop for one second and recall that in the 90's most of the conflicts that they were involved with was to do with Arab's ( Iraq, Saddam, ring a bell?)then it is only fitting that the bad guys in this film are kamikaze and martyr like Arabs. And if you have the intelligence to understand the movie, by the end you will get a full explanation as to why Arab's are doing what they are doing. It is a very clear and concise explanation by Benning's character.

This movie shows what happens when, after years of oppression and interference by the U.S, one country or one group takes matters into their own hands and doesn't do an allout war, but a quiet one that not only kills but changes the way of life in America.

Iraq, Saddam, ring a bell? I'll bet this fellow was carrying a "God Bless Saddam" sign this past weekend. You've got to admire his anonymous bravery: he says right out front that thwarting Saddam's annexation of Kuwait was a perfectly justifiable reason for terrorism. While the rest of the world, these past few months, has been insisting that Saddam had nothing to do with September 11, this fellow asks, in effect, "So what if he did? You deserved it for frustrating his territorial ambitions."

Now, American society is often said to be absolutely uncritical, unreflective, which I find to be a bizarre charge. If European society is much more critical of itself, you must not be able to walk for the spilled blood and ink mingled in the streets. I suspect that what this means is that it's rarely criticized from a Socialist or Communist perspective, and I'm sure that is true. Few people in the US take those groups seriously.

Nevertheless, American society does go in for an enormous amount of omphaloskepsis. Movies like The Siege set up a toy situation and try to examine how our society would react within it. (You see that this particular scenario did not go as envisioned. I suspect that this was due in part to the enormous, sudden, and isolated nature of the event. If there had been a number of smaller incidents, or followups to September 11, there might have been internments as described.)

Apparently, this annoys foreigners as much as a lack of introspection. See, when movies portray us violating our ideals, they implicitly affirm those ideals. Some people seem to be disgusted at the very idea that we dare espouse these ideals at all, after we've violated them. That seems to be the point of this Austrian reviewer:

Date: 26 January 1999
Summary: US-army shown very good! In the end too much patriatism

...I payed to see this film. It wasn't that bad, I specially liked the way the us-army is shown here - really good! But the end is typical for american movies - patriotism rules and wins... I'm full with this stuff!! Take 90 of 100 american movies, cut away the last 10 or 15 minutes and you have very good movies, but ... very many directors over there are able to change an excellent movie into a movie you would never watch again - and this just because of the end!

You'll remember that the US Army was (allegedly) shown as a bunch of repressive Neanderthals---that's the "very good" he means.

Many foreign reviewers cited the "patriotism" of the movie with distaste, although I gather that most of the (rather heavy-handed, I'll bet) patriotic speeches were geared toward trying to convince other characters to live up to American ideals, rather than to blindly avow them.

That seems to be this Canadian's take as well:

Date: 11 November 1998
Summary: Good movie worth seeing but very "American".

The Siege is a really good movie that tells an interesting story and I'd recommend seeing it. It would help if you were an American as the "American Spirit" seems to be one of the focal points of the movie. As a Canadian I had some difficulty with some of the sentiments Denzel Washington was espousing no matter how convincing.

There are 182 user comments to the movie, at present, and under half of them were written since 9/11/01. The ones I've excerpted here weren't necessarily the most outrageous, they were just the most illustrative.

What I'd really hoped to find were comments along the lines of "Oh, that can't happen here" (which only one or two comments hinted at), and especially those from foreigners suggesting that such a thing was American paranoia. But I didn't see those.

I love having a blog. That means I can waste a really unconscionable amount of time looking at something, and even more time writing it up, and then I get to inflict it on you. Hurray!

(Wonder what Dreher thought of the movie?)