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Friday, Oct. 12, 2007
American revenge fantasy
It seems impossible to make a movie about 9/11 or the "war on terror" without getting sucked into the political dogfight surrounding the mess America now finds itself in. Whether it's "The Road To Guantanamo," "United 97," or even the latest season of "24," it's hard to portray current events — even fictional scenarios — without commentators on the left and right trying to sniff out an agenda.
"The Kingdom," an FBI vs. al-Qaida thriller set in Saudi Arabia, seems to have found its own answer: trying to please everybody. For most of its running time, it's a find-and-kill-the-terrorists revenge flick, red meat for the right. But it also practices the politics of racial inclusion — there are good-guy Saudi cops as well as the usual Arab "evildoers" — and suggests, in a last-minute showstopper, that the cycle of violence — of action and reaction — may not contain any solutions.
"The Kingdom" does moviegoers one big favor, if nothing else, by redirecting our attention to Saudi Arabia, home of Wahhabi fundamentalism, funder to jihad madrasahs in Pakistan, bankroller of the Taliban, and birthplace of both Osama bin Laden and most of the 9-11 hijackers. This is a healthy reminder, given that the Bush administration has done its best to keep us focused on the people who didn't attack the United States on 9-11, the Iraqis, so they can protect their oil industry friends in the ruling feudal aristocracy.
The film opens with shots of an all-American barbecue and a softball game on a hot summer afternoon . . . except when the camera pulls back, we see this little American vision is actually a fenced-off enclave in the Middle East for oil-company employees. We are then given a menacing predator's view of the compound through binoculars, and see two terrorists disguised in security-guard uniforms penetrate the perimeter.
What follows is an outrage, as families enjoying their lazy afternoon are gunned down mercilessly, and then a suicide bomber blows everything to hell. What this represents is America's worst nightmare; what the film will now try to sell us on is the idea that there's a quick fix to such problems and it's called the FBI.
When an FBI liaison is killed at the Saudi crime scene, his friends back in Washington decide to head to Saudi Arabia and find whoever was involved. After pressuring their superiors into letting them go, agents Fleury (Jamie Foxx), Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Leavitt (Jason Batemen) take a flight to the desert kingdom. There they find the Saudi military determined to prevent them from leaving their quarters, figuring their presence will lead to other attacks. Fleury finds a reluctant ally in Saudi Police Col. Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom).
Director Peter Berg does milk the situation somewhat for "Lethal Weapon"-like buddy-cop jokes (Fleury's frequent use of the word "s**t" is mistaken by Al Ghazi as a need to use the toilet), but it's less successful at showing why a Saudi would go the extra mile for the United States. The film emphasizes Al-Ghazi's humanity, showing him as a family man, playing with his sons when he's off-duty. It's through this bond of humanity — a common outrage at the massacre of innocents — that the Saudi cop joins the Americans. (And yet the other side would claim this too — that the ranks of insurgents and suicide bombers swell with those outraged over the loss of innocent life to "crusader" missiles and airstrikes.)
The film mostly ignores motivation — like most current Hollywood fare and foreign policy, too — and plays it pretty straight as a thriller, which is not without its own rewards. The FBI team dig up some clues from the crime scene and start investigating leads, not least of which is a videotape of the attack posted on a jihad Web site as propaganda of the deed — the camera angle of the shot leads them to exactly where the terrorists were filming.
The film is produced by Michael Mann ("Miami Vice," "Heat"), and you can see traces of his style in both the casting of Mann regular Jamie Foxx and the ferocious gunfights that break out when the FBI agents raid the bombers' safe house. Particularly tense is when one American is kidnapped, and his comrades race to save him before the jihadis behead him on video.
This is like a No. 1 American revenge fantasy, the idea that firepower alone can solve this problem. In a sense, "The Kingdom" is offering the same bad advice that got us into the Iraq mess in the first place. The film's last minute conversion to the idea that violence can't solve anything rings hollow after two hours of showing us that it can. But what else can one do with the sort of person whose concept of politics is beheading? If nothing else, "The Kingdom" has captured the fact that there are no good choices in the "war on terror."