The Siege (1998)
Focusing on a spate of attacks by Islamist extremists, sadly in a post 9/11 world The Siege's plot carries a lot more credibility then it did prior to those real life horrors. But what does it offer today by way of commentary, and as a piece of entertainment?
Directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, Blood Diamond) The Siege also features an excellent leading cast of Annette Bening, Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis and Tony Shalhoub. All perform well here, treating what could have turned out as a silly story with sincerity. Bening and Washington have remained solid actors since. While Willis's star may have faded, he can act given the right part. The Siege was made while Willis was still consistent, and a box office draw.
Washington's FBI counter terror agent Hubbard and his partner, Libyan Muslim Haddad (Shalhoub) are front line when a series of bombings in New York leave scores dead. They are joined by Bening's mysterious CIA operative. It is an uneasy marriage between agencies with competing and contrasting ambitions and methods. Bombings intensify and under pressure to do something the government send in the army, to impose martial law, under General Devereaux (Willis). New York becomes a pressure cooker of hatred, suspicion and fear.
The Siege remains very, very tense in places, even for a repeat view- I first saw it in the cinema twenty years ago. From a pure entertainment perspective it is mostly excellent cinema. My only criticism would be that, somewhat out of a narrative necessity, it becomes a little bit singular; a little “Hollywood” towards its conclusion. These days, with the threat of terror a genuine, daily one in all major cities, it's nigh on impossible to watch The Siege without placing it within that context.
Many things in Zwick's film ring true. These include the complexities of counter terrorism; at one point there is a rather on the nose discussion about the effectiveness of certain “enhanced interrogation” techniques. The Siege's portrayal of an emotionally charged, frightened and crucially diverse major city is believable. A cauldron of communities where hatred is split increasingly indiscriminately.
The horror, mayhem, confusion and panic that surrounds any attack on civilians, that awful sinking in of the enormity and implication of what has happened. Rising, sickening like a gut shot. The Siege captures that. Finally, and perhaps most ominously, are the eerie news reports, fictionalised for the film. Clipped together and overlapping. So close to the bone of the real thing, as if they were pulled back in time. Claims, counter claims, misinformation and the trickle of the gory truth which seeps through.
I felt rather sad watching The Siege, what seemed like overblown Hollywood tropes in 1998 now feel like a portent of doom. It is over twenty years old, but with that lunatic Trump in the White House it is horrifyingly more likely for life to imitate art than ever.
The Cinematic Sommelier: For terror and negotiating themed action- thrillers: Arlington Road, and The Negotiator which is on Prime, instantly spring to mind. On Netflix is Law Abiding Citizen, which is much less serious and great popcorn fun. My left-field recommendation is the Sean Bean counter-terror thriller Cleanskin.
Bedsit it? Would be higher but I took issue that The Siege gets somewhat clichéd in its final act. This might be unfair as when it was made it was just a piece of entertainment. Frightening escapism, but escapism nonetheless. Hoisted by its own petard, The Siege is no longer just entertainment. It is, though, still very much worth your time. 7/10