Interesting, well-performed, but inevitably castrated by it’s pre-9/11 sentiments, this drama-thriller shows what happens when New York begins to be systematically attacked via bus bombs. The film takes a micro POV to what is, ostensibly, a macro problem; instead of focusing on the film from a government perspective, showing the various changes in national policy and interactions in the White House, the plot revolves around three agents, two with the FBI and a CIA rogue, dealing with the problem on the ground level. We see how the FBI agents are forced to walk into situations with high levels of risk with little or no briefing by their NSA and CIA counterparts; the red tape and misinformation keeps the actual operatives on site relatively in the dark as to the true nature of the threat at hand, making their jobs extremely intense and, often, life-threatening. Once the terrorists begin making their presence known, and the body count begins to rise, talks commence regarding a full military takeover of New York City, particularly focused on Brooklyn’s heavy Arab population, who are mostly rounded up in containment camps. The martial law makes it near-impossible to do further probing and investigation without involving the blanket, overly-present military intervention, and the three government officers must navigate the tank-ridden streets of NYC in search of the remaining terrorist cells before they finish their assault.
At the time the film was made, the biggest terrorist attack on American soil was the Oklahoma City bombing, which was already 7 years old; the fact that the attacks of September 11 are not even on the radar yet both helps and hinders the overall effect of the picture. On one hand, the way that the New York offices of the FBI are dumbstruck and flailing in the aftermath of a surprise, lethal domestic attack is harrowing in its portrayal of a powerful, but ultimately, impotent network of law enforcement officials. While the current CIA show Homeland continually repeats the line, “We all missed something that day,” in regards to 9/11, The Siege shows how the FBI is (or, presumably, was), relatively, in the dark, depending on a shadowy CIA that rarely, if ever, relents pressing information in a timely manner. Their floundering attempts at creating a sort of paradigm to deal with these Middle Eastern terrorists, particularly in tandem with the oppressive, aggressive military element, gives the film an immediacy it would not be able to achieve in today’s post-Al Quaeda, post-Bin Laden environment. The images of an intact World Trade center hovering over the massive crackdown is, now, also haunting and effective in a way that was totally lost on the 90′s-era filmmakers.
However, the fact that the film is, in the end, about these three agents, and not about the law enforcement agencies, or even the country at large, ultimately relegates the film into a more typical, domestic sort of thriller. While the film deals with national and social implications of this sort of climate (the camps, which proved to be 100% reality in the aftermath of 9/11, imprison the son of one of the central FBI agents, causing him to tell his superiors “I’m not your sand-nigger anymore”), it is more about Denzel Washington’s central “lone wolf” FBI agent, with scenes of him singlehandedly negotiating with bombers, disarming terrorist threats, and saving both hostages and witnesses. By the time the film reaches its humdrum gunfight climax, and starts shouting its liberal politics at an audience that, presumably, has no concept of humanity in the face of danger, one cannot help but imagine if the film’s subject matter could’ve been dealt with a tad more weightily, and less conventionally thriller-esque. However, the lack of modern-day, The Kingdom-esque politics giving the whole film a false air of contemporary relativism actually makes the film a more breezy endeavor than some of its post-9/11 counterparts, and the reliance on thriller tropes keeps the plotline from stagnating into diatribe or political statements (until the end). But by refraining from those statements, and the grander moral and ethical dilemmas presented by the terrorist threat, the film ends up being far less effective or memorable than it could’ve been.
On a technical level, the film is rock-solid. The New York locations are handled beautifully, the action/thriller scenes are well-handled and executed, and the presentation of Arab-Americans in the tense climate is both uncondescending and politically correct. The casting is, aside from when the script subverts their efforts, impeccable. Denzel Washington was an ideal badass everyman at the time, kicking ass and taking names, while being his old charming self in between showdowns. Annette Bening is perfectly cast as the tricky, elusive CIA agent, seemingly always open, flirty, and friendly, while holding her cards closer to her chest than anyone else. Lance Reddick and David Proval hold their weight as fellow FBI agents, Aasiv Mandvi is haunting as a suspected terrorist, and Bruce freaking Willis has a fierce presence as the general tasked with locking down NYC (although he never tops his first, silent appearance, where all he needs for recognition or effect is his trademark scowl). But the film is stolen by its third lead, Tony Shalhoub, as the conflicted Arab-American member of Denzel’s team. Far from a mere stab at political correctness, his FBI agent is a cheeky, nonreligious cad, liked by his workmates, and with only a faint shred of an accent. When the ish starts going down, it is his disillusionment with his government that provides his livelihood that comes off as the biggest tragedy, and it is his participation in the final act that gives it much of its emotional drive. The most racist thing I can say about the movie is that there is no real thematic reason why Shalhoub’s character is not the protaganist, save for his Arab ethnicity; if this movie were to be remade, you could flip Shalhoub and Denzel’s roles, making Denzel’s reckless, intense hounddog the sidekick, and probably end up with a better film.
Recommended to fans of grandiose, politically-tinged thrillers like Green Zone or The Kingdom, which this film has more in common with than something like Die Hard with a Vengeance (which shares a similar premise). This is not the grand-slam it could be, neither today, nor, probably, at the time it was released, but it remains an innocently honest and liberal portrayal of a haunted, shellshocked NYC, with some great moments, and performances to match.