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Complexity Under 'Siege'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Siege
Denzel Washington plays a special agent keeping a close eye on Bruce Willis and Brooklyn. (20th Century Fox)

Edward Zwick
Denzel Washington;
Bruce Willis;
Annette Bening;
Garry Pastore
Tony Shalhoub
Running Time:
1 hour, 56 minutes
Bloody scenes of terrorist activity, sexual innuendo and general anxiety
To all appearances, "The Siege" is just another one of those testosterone-stoked, star-powered showdowns between brains and brute force, the brain in this case belonging to Denzel and the brute appertaining to Bruce. (For the name-impaired or others just arriving on this planet, that's Messrs. Washington and Willis, who play, respectively, FBI agent Anthony Hubbard and Gen. William Devereaux of the U.S. Army.)

In the most basic ways, that's all this drama about terrorists in New York City is-a familiar tale of masculine head-butting involving wile and negotiation on the one hand (in the form of the glib Hubbard of the Joint FBI/NYPD Terrorism Task Force) and military might on the other (in the form of taciturn Devereaux, who enforces martial law on the borough of Brooklyn to smoke out the Islamic bad guys).

It's getting a little tired by now, but yes, once again the villains are dark-skinned foreigners with Middle Eastern accents. They're blowing up buses, taking kids hostage and ramming vans full of explosives into government buildings, except this time it's on American soil. What lifts "The Siege" above this cliche, however, is the fact that one of the good guys is also of Arab descent: Hubbard's Lebanese American partner Frank Haddad (a dignified and forceful Tony Shalhoub).

But wait, that's not all that sets the film apart from the herd of pyrotechnic thrillers. Its rampant machismo is tempered by a much-needed injection of estrogen, courtesy of Annette Bening, who plays undercover CIA operative Elise Kraft, in town to utilize her own covert contacts in the terrorist underworld.

Her role in the story is an odd and complex one, though. With macha bravado, she gives as good as she gets from her swaggering and tough-talking costars, which is nice to hear. And it is refreshing to see a mature actress cast as a sex symbol instead of some 22-year-old bimbo. On the other hand, it is depressing that so much is made of her sexuality and whom she is sleeping with, while the boys' bedroom habits are left completely unaddressed by the narrative.

In fairness to "The Siege," Kraft's love life does play an integral part in the suspenseful and moderately twisty plot, which is well-handled by sensitive director, producer and co-writer Edward Zwick (of "Glory" and "thirtysomething" fame). Still, it would be nice if Hollywood could get past the sniggering notion that girls merely acting like guys in the sack is still something to gawk at.

One thing Zwick's movie does get past nicely is the racist assumption that all Islamic people are criminals, by making that very xenophobia a prominent subplot. Not only does the story address what happens when our Army is forced to occupy an American city, but it indicts our ethnic paranoia by showing the internment of young Islamic males-including Haddad's teenage son (Helmi Kassim) – as a crude and excessive weapon in the war against terrorism. Unlike other Arab-demonizing action films such as "True Lies," "The Siege" at least redeems itself with a thoughtful examination of where this country's all-too prevalent hatred of The Other might one day lead.

What a shame, therefore, that in its puritanical treatment of the only strong female character, the otherwise politically correct police story is blithely unaware of its own closet misogyny.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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