A while ago, I saw an interview with ex-X-Files writers Glen Morgan and James Wong. In the interview, Morgan and Wong, who wrote some of the most memorable episodes of the show, were asked how they came up with some of their bizarre ideas. The two looked at each other and answered with a short story. What they did when out of ideas was look out their office window and just ask, “what if?” about something ordinary. From there the two start asking “what if?” about things related and that’s how they spin the tales that they do. This sounds like the same technique The Siege writers took when they wrote the movie.
What if terrorists started terrorizing New York? What if the terrorists were Arabs? What if society started turning against Arabs? What if Arabs were taken and locked into concentration camps? What if the US law enforcement agencies could not handle the terrorist activities? What if the US Army was called in to handle the terrorists? What if you lost your freedom and your civil liberties?
For the first two-thirds of The Siege, it was a wonderfully entertaining film. This portion of the film follows FBI agent Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) and Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub) as they try to track down the terrorists bombing New York City. This part of the film shows crackling good hard-boiled detective work. The two meet a suspicious CIA agent, Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), who may or may not be on their side.
The exact point when The Siege falls apart is easy to spot; it’s when Bruce Willis enters the film. I like Willis as an actor, and his acting is not the reason The Siege starts to unravel. The character that Willis portrays ruins the film. General William Devereaux is in charge of the Army presence that is brought into New York City to shut it down and squeeze until the terrorists come out. I’m not sure what happened, but it seemed that the writers at this point just ran out of ideas. From this point on everything is contrived, including the awful ending.
Ultimately, the major failings of The Siege is that it strives to be politically correct. Because the filmmakers did not want to offend anyone, The Siege ends up alienating everyone. The writers, Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes, and Edward Zwick, know they are going to take heat for portraying Arabs as terrorists, so they also write about Arabs who are taken into interment camps. The problem is that the writers deal with both the terrorists and prisoners at arms-length. We never get to know or feel for a prisoner and we never get to know or feel for why the terrorists are doing what they’re doing. The script turns the Arab people into a lumped group of “they” or “them” instead of having characters that we can relate to.
I was somewhat disappointed in The Siege when I look back and see the powerful movies that have come from the collaboration between director Zwick and actor Washington, such as Glory and Courage Under Fire. The Siege does not reach the heights that these movies obtained.
The performances are all top-notch; even that of Bruce Willis. Washington, as always, is intense and believable onscreen. He is given a few speeches where he shows just how good of an actor he is - including a speech near the end of the film where he talks about freedom and the Constitution. Bening is good as the ever unclear, good or bad, CIA agent Elise Kraft.
The one performance that I enjoyed - even more than Washington’s - is Tony Shalhoub’s performance. Shalhoub is able to switch, effortlessly, between serious and playfully comic. Where Willis is too serious, Washington too uptight, and Bening too crafty, Shalhoub is level and sane. Shalhoub brings both humor and humanity to his character. Kudos to Tony Shalhoub for his splendid performance in The Siege; he made the film watchable.
But, in the end, The Siege falls into mediocrity because it’s not brave enough to take a stance. Instead, The Siege wanders and tries to please everyone, but fails miserably. Catch The Siege on video for the performances of Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis, and Tony Shalhaub.
Edited by Cher Johnson.