Annette Bening, Denzel Washington and Tony Shalhoub in The Siege

The Siege

The Siege, a heavy-handed what-if terrorism drama from Glory director Edward Zwick, is nothing if not well-intentioned. Despite the protests of Arab-American advocacy groups who lament the arrival of yet another Hollywood film featuring Muslim terrorists as bad guys, The Siege goes out of its way to underscore the existence of virtuous, or at least benign, Arabs in an America that’s become afraid of the Middle East. But The Siege squanders it all — for all their high-minded ambition, the filmmakers didn’t realize that they had scuttled it all by writing one of those scenes near the end of the picture featuring roomfuls of men pointing guns at each other. You’ve seen most of this before.
What you haven’t seen is often striking. With help from ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, Kundun), Zwick makes pretty good use of New York locations, lending an unsettling verisimilitude to the scenes that have bombs taking out a packed city bus, a Broadway theater, and One Federal Plaza. Less effective is the clumsy intercutting of anti-terrorist speeches by President Clinton into the film’s early scenes, as though we needed to be reminded that such bombings are torn from today’s headlines.

Denzel Washington is cast as the speechifying FBI agent, all the better to hammer home the film’s messages about fear, freedom, and the lack thereof. He actually does pretty well with the overheated dialogue, which is more than can be said for miscast military honcho Bruce Willis and poor Annette Bening, saddled with the sporadically interesting but ultimately thankless role of a whip-smart operative who’s personally involved with the CIA’s undercover agent in Brooklyn’s Muslim terrorist underground. In a weird bit of near-misogyny, the film gives her props for balls and bitchiness, but never forgives her for sleeping with one of her operatives.

Tony Shalhoub is fine as Frank Haddad, Washington’s dedicated Arab-American sidekick. His role is, of course, a token one: he’s the Good Arab. The rest of the Arab characters are either villains or mere faces in the crowd. The film pushes some of the right buttons when it has the military go door to door to round up young men of Arab descent for the internment camps, but it’s too little too late — by that time, the wheels are already grinding inexorably toward a showdown as glum, dumb and ho-hum as anything in modern Hollywood. In all, quite a disappointment.


Directed by Edward Zwick
Written by Zwick, Lawrence Wright, and Menno Meyjes
Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Edited by Steven Rosenblum
Starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, and Bruce Willis
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1
USA, 1998

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