The Siege (1998)

The Siege (1998)
  • Time: 116 min
  • Genre: Action | Thriller
  • Director: Edward Zwick
  • Cast: Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis


After the abduction by the US military of an Islamic religious leader, New York City becomes the target of escalating terrorist attacks. Anthony Hubbard, the head of the FBI’s Counter-Terrorism Task Force in New York, teams up with CIA operative Elise Kraft to hunt down the terrorist cells responsible for the attacks. As the bombings continue, the US government responds by declaring martial law, sending US troops, led by Gen. Devereaux, into the streets of New York City.

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  • A bus is taken hostage by a Palestinian terrorist. On board are men, women, seniors, and children. And a bomb. Outside are camera crews, helicopters, ambulance workers, firemen, and the NYPD. Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) watches as Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) approaches the bus. She is an undercover CIA operative while he is the head of the joint FBI/NYPD terrorism task force. He’s come to talk down the bomber with the help of his Arabian partner, Frank (Tony Shalhoub), who serves as translator. Despite warnings from Elise, who is well-versed in terrorist tactics, Hubbard believes he can negotiate with the terrorist. His first request is met: the children are released. He makes a second request: let the older people go. The terrorist complies again. As the elderly begin to file out and Hubbard breathes a small sigh of relief, the bus explodes. Hubbard is knocked to the ground, shards of glass are everywhere, and bits of metal fall to the earth. As the camera pans around the stunned and saddened Hubbard, the smoldering fire in Washington’s eye assures us that, whoever the leader of this terrorist gang is, he will be caught.

    The Siege, Washington’s third teaming with Edward Zwick who directed him in his Oscar-winning supporting role in Glory (their second collaboration was Courage Under Fire), is the sort of crackerjack political thriller that Hollywood rarely makes nowadays. Like Washington, the film bristles with intelligence, tension and provocation. The film teases the head while wrenching the gut. Zwick’s urgent pacing during the first half of the film — essentially a series of bomb threats which Hubbard and his team respond to — prevents The Siege from turning monotonous. On the strength of Zwick’s direction alone, The Siege could have comfortably settled into being a film about investigating a series of bombings. It needn’t have been more than that, just as The Negotiator didn’t have to be anything more than an acting duel between Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Zwick, however, has always been an ambitious sort and, from a basic almost formulaic premise, The Siege offers this intriguing question: where does the line between protecting the safety of the citizens and protecting those citizens’ rights begin and end?

    The severity of threats resurrects hatred for the Arab community, which falls victim once martial law is declared upon the city of New York. Those fitting the description of the suspects are placed in internment camps, an echo of the nation’s actions imposed upon the Japanese during World War II. The Siege has already caught the ire of Palestinian groups, who argue that the stereotype of their countrymen as terrorists is being perpetuated. Though nothing will probably appease them, not all Palestinian characters are depicted as villainous. Americans in the film rally to protest the treatment of the Arabs by the soldiers under the command of General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), who seems to be taking his duties a few steps too far. Devereaux is easily the weakest character of the star trio; whether that is attributable to deficiencies in Willis’ characterization or in the way the character is written, I’m not quite sure. When Devereaux initially protests the suggestion of martial law during a particularly engaging scene where senators have gathered to discuss how they should deal with this particular crisis, you’re not quite sure if the protestation is sincere or merely a secret manipulation — the character seems too treacherous. More ambiguity should have been integrated into the character: is Devereaux carrying out his duties because he is loyal to the country or because he is loyal to himself?

    With roles opposite Robert De Niro in Guilty By Suspicion and Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry as well as her incendiary performances in Valmont and especially The Grifters, Bening slated herself to be Hollywood’s great female hope. Then along came Bugsy, Beatty and babies and Bening refocused her energies on marriage and motherhood. For those left breathless by her unique brand of coquettish mischief, her absence was an irreparable dent. Though she teamed again with Beatty in Love Affair and lent her classy charm to The American President, she hasn’t replicated the minxish quality of her earlier performances. Well, Bening is back and The Siege reaps the rewards of her presence. She and Washington banter and bicker quite often; what’s seductive is the passionate intelligence in their exchanges. And Bening thins the line between business and pleasure — the flirtatious spark in her eyes and the suggestive tone in her voice seem preternatural. Elise also broaches the movie’s main themes: “In this game,” she tells Hubbard, “the most committed wins.” And, more intriguingly, she offers the enigmatic observation: “What’s hard is choosing the wrong that’s more right.” She should know: her ambiguous ties to one of the main suspects has Hubbard questioning her motives. Devereaux doesn’t think too highly of her. “A woman will never understand the Middle East.” More to the point: “She wouldn’t know a sheik from a prophylactic of the same time.”

    Shalhoub has the film’s most interesting character as well as one of its strongest performances. The dualities Frank must contend with throughout the film — helping to imprison his own people but eager in his duties, and trying to remain loyal to his department even as his son is interned — are impressively delineated in a portrayal that transcends the few gaps in the writing and deserves to be honored come Oscar time.

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