Monday, 17 December 2012

The Siege

Often enough in this world, serious cinephiles may find themselves belabouring the point that Hollywood action blockbusters all seem to be appallingly reactionary drivel – refusing any hint of moral culpability on the part of America’s martial institutions, and making an infantile caricature of their opponents. Why, the cinephile line goes, can’t more intelligent films be written, which deliver gunfights, chases, and explosions sure, but which also seriously engage with the issues underlying Hollywood’s routine action plotlines?

Edward Zwick’s 1998 film The Siege answers the question handily: because whenever such an attempt is made, the results always seem to be even worse than the brainlessly reactionary status quo.

The Siege is that pre-9/11 film which tried to realistically envision what catastrophic terrorist attacks on New York would look like, and what society’s response might be. So like Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla and Michael Bay’s Armageddon that summer, we see a lot of New York getting smashed up real good. The difference is that while in those films we were allowed – nay expected – to completely turn off our social sensitivities and atavistically revel in all the wanton carnage, here we are expected to be shocked and distressed at the real prospect of all this. This moralizing undertow is faintly off-putting in what is still, after all, supposed to be a Hollywood blockbuster spectacle, but one goes with it at first. In short order, we learn that the Arab-American community will obsequiously “co-operate fully” with FBI investigations; that terrorists who fully intend to blow up a bus anyway can be talked into letting the children off first; that Bruce Willis’s terse four-star general is a “card-carrying member of the ACLU”; that declaring martial law is a great way for Clinton to “look presidential”; that Arab professors who sign off on student visas are of course bloodthirsty terrorists themselves; and that US troops will soften in the heart and lower their weapons in reply to a big noble speech. The Siege strains for a realistic tone throughout, but after a certain point the contrivances build up to a point that it’s swimming hopelessly against the current, and you catch yourself thinking it might as well just give up the pretense and embrace its numbskulled side. Moreover, the film’s most distinctive visual attractions – lots of intense shots of the American military deploying inside New York, and Bruce Willis playing a mercurial and unpredictable hard-ass – were done with much greater gusto and less convolutedness in those much-abused spectacles from 1998, Godzilla and Armageddon. Comparing The Siege to the other two is to grudgingly come up against the fact that Hollywood’s blockbuster status quo is imperfect, yes, but that those at the helm do have some idea what they’re doing.

The supposedly reactionary side to such films can be excused easily enough because of, rather than in spite of, their very simplicity and crudity. Watching the training montage at the end of Rocky IV, for example, I’ve always been struck by how the actual devices being employed – the cross-cutting between Rocky working out in the woods and his rustic farmhouse, versus Drago training under hi-tech laboratory conditions, sternly watched by unsympathetic supervisors – have nothing intrinsically to do with crude Reagan-era anticommunism. We're simply seeing one more iteration of the classic human myth that spiritual strength for victory comes from closeness to nature, as opposed to the dehumanizing effects of total mechanization. It requires only the simplest imaginative adjustment to revel in the brio with which Stallone invests the sequence, while looking past the infantile Cold War politics.

Likewise, the thematic crudities of films like Godzilla and Armageddon represent their directors simply taking the narrative line of least resistance, in order to focus on the spectacle aspect. Of course this doesn’t yield completely satisfactory films, but the mega-spectacle they offer is still such a potent, bombastic intervention into our imaginative lives that their narratives would need to be a lot more repressively moralistic and censorious than they are to fully counteract its effect. When one looks at this New York Times Home & Garden feature on Roland Emmerich’s outlandish new London home, for instance…

…one’s first reaction is almost certainly to fume “why can’t he/won’t he transfer that same politically irreverent spirit into his actual films?” rather than to dismissively say “one more confirmation of what an idiot and a vulgarian he is.” Likewise, when in the opening sequence of Armageddon, Michael Bay lovingly recreates the famous 1934 photo of Grand Central Station, and then has a meteorite blast it to smithereens, one feels the infectious joy of a child at play, boisterously bashing his toys around. The sort of spectator who would priggishly say “that’s not funny – you should respect the classics of architecture and photography,” is probably exactly the sort who would think The Siege is, in spite of everything, a template for how Hollywood should work, because it attempts to be educational and uplifting about a serious subject.

To these contemporaries, one would finally have to add as an obvious influence James Cameron’s True Lies. And this comparison goes to show where the source of so much of Cameron’s greatness as a filmmaker lies, and why Zwick in contrast – for all his epic earnestness – has never really transcended his second-tier standing. Cameron’s films have given us Sarah Connor, Ripley’s power-loader/firepower incarnation, Rose DeWitt Bukater, Neytiri, and possibly Alita someday. His one foray into TV with Dark Angel single-handedly made Jessica Alba a kick-ass star. Even True Lies, for all the dubiousness of Jamie Lee Curtis’s treatment, gave us an irresistible performance by Tia Carrere as the deliciously minxy villainess. Zwick’s spectacles, in contrast, have always been totally male affairs, and seem imbued with the idea that the forging and testing of martial bonds between men is the highest and most inspiring form of drama. That this sort of dramaturgy generally leaves absolutely no place for women – except as virtuously suffering well-wishers and mourners – never seems to come up. The one time Zwick did try to inject a strong female presence into one of these films, with Meg Ryan in Courage Under Fire, it was as someone who died before the beginning of the narrative proper, and who may in fact have been a coward unjustly buoyed up by political correctness. This sort of solemn mythologizing of male warrior bonds is impossible to take seriously because it represents such a transparent act of immature myth-making: men don’t really want to admit they can’t handle living with and relating to women, so they create a mythic worldview in which humanity’s highest achievements are located away from, and inaccessible to, women. A general leading troops into battle seems less heroic when we know he’s a hen-pecked weakling back home with his wife, and so the relative importance of the two has to be grossly re-weighted. And accordingly, Zwick’s films tend to take place in historical locales – Civil War America, feudal Japan, war-torn Africa, World War II’s Eastern front, etc. – where this won’t seem too incongruous. To try and pull this off within a totally familiar and contemporary setting, however, is problematic in the extreme.

In light of all this, it comes as absolutely no surprise that The Siege’s first and most intractable problem is that its supposed hero – Denzel Washington’s FBI chief “Anthony Hubbard” – is a misogynistic asshole. This in itself wouldn’t be such a catastrophe, if only the film was aware of it and finessed it, but alas, Zwick seems deluded that he’s created a sympathetic hero here. The result is that Annette Bening’s heroine – CIA agent “Elise Kraft” – undergoes a two-hour marathon of endless abuse, and is never allowed to stand up for herself. Scene after scene goes by with Hubbard insulting her, ignoring her advice, disrespecting her authority, or otherwise seeking to denigrate and humiliate her, and Bening’s part not only never allowing her any revenge, but even any real anger or offence. Zwick was presumably attempting to have her be polker-faced and mysterious in the way we might expect a CIA agent to be, but that sort of walking softly only works dramatically if we are also absolutely sure that she has a big stick handy which she simply isn’t bothering to use at the moment. The film, however, does not bother to provide this. On literal realist grounds, Kraft would have flunked out of CIA training within a week, seeming to be psychologically incapable of taking control of a situation. Even Elizabeth Olsen’s befuddled and brainwashed cult escapee in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a few posts ago, seemed better at standing up for herself.

Even all this wouldn’t quite have made the film so toxic to me if there hadn’t been one slightly discordant scene that showed what might have been. Around the beginning of the second act, the “good guy” cast is in a restaurant, celebrating what they believe to have been the destruction of the terrorist cell, when Kraft sounds Hubbard out on the Palestinians. He notes the seeming dissonance in how she seems to love them so much, but nonetheless “works against them” with the Israelis. “Just the crazy,” she replies, “I tend to be suspicious of all true believers, present company included.” And here she mounts a devastatingly accurate critique of not only Hubbard’s character, but the type that seems to fill the niche of “authoritative hero” in so many Hollywood movies throughout history: “Catholic school, president of this, captain of that, hard work, make a difference, fair play, change the system from within, rah-rah-rah. … It’s easy to tell the difference between right and wrong. What’s hard is choosing the wrong that’s more right.”

In a better film, this sort of swift and surgical stroke would have set the tone for the rest of the narrative, with Hubbard having to wean himself off his easy moral absolutism and learn to respect Kraft’s more detached, relativistic worldview, presumably after having first made a catastrophic blunder of some sort by obstinately refusing to do so. The Siege, however, is not that better film. The very scene itself is undercut by having Kraft be drunk and unstable, and then caveating her remarks by saying “ignore me, I’m shitfaced.” And the ensuing movie lets Hubbard totally off the hook on all counts, and continues to punish and humiliate Kraft for the remainder of the movie before finally her off at the end.

The one caveat to all of this is that, if it’s going to exist at all, a part such as Hubbard could only be played by an African-American actor nowadays. To have Kraft be comparably belaboured by a white male would have put the film so beyond the pale as to be unreleasable by a major studio. As it is, a few (male) critics decided that having the ass-headed hero be the descendant of slaves made his cavalier insolence toward the woman some sort of character psychology, rather than unreconstructed misogyny. Six years later one would see this same sort of dynamic at work again with Will Smith’s performance in I, Robot – a film which manages to be even more problematic than this one, but at least offers some interesting sci-fi visuals in recompense. Ultimately, though, the only redeeming feature about The Siege is that it was an ignominious failure at the box office.

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