Saturday Night Cinema: The Siege


Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema selection, The Siege, is extraordinary in that the subject matter is virtually nonexistent in Hollywood. It’s verboten. The overseers at MPAC wouldn’t have it. Denzel Washington stars in this taut suspense-thriller as the head of an FBI anti-terrorism unit who finds himself as the point man when a group of Islamic terrorists stage a series of deadly attacks on New York City. Extraordinary. When was the last time you saw a Hollywood film where the terrorists were jihadis? Think about it. There have been five Jack Ryan films. The great American patriot and decorated Marine and now CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence battled the Reds (Soviets), Irish terrorists, Mexican drug cartels, old Nazis planning to provoke a war between the U.S. and Russia, and Russian economic terrorists. But never jihadis. Talk about your alternate universes…..

The Siege was released in 1998, three years before 9/11, which is why this the film is so very fascinating. The numerous NYC city skyline shots with the World Trade Center in the background are a punch in the stomach. The cowards in Hollywood have not attempted to broach the subject matter post-9/11. The reviews at the time were not kind. Apparently the thought of a jihad attack with massive casualties was too incredible for film reviewers to fathom.

The film was tagged by the initial accusations of “Islamophobia” back then — before 9/11. The Islamic machine of victimhood was already primed and waiting to pounce … on our dead. The Siege sparked outrage from Islamic supremacist groups over its “Islamic terror cells attack New York City” plot line, despite the fact that the trailer clearly and explicitly stated its intentions to focus on the reaction to said terror attacks and the effects on the Arabic communities caught in the crossfire. The outcry is absurd, considering the film’s mission to point out how wrong such profiling is.

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When the film opened, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee came out against the film. Its spokesman Hussein Ibish said “The Siege is extremely offensive. It’s beyond offensive. We’re used to offensive, that’s become a daily thing. This is actually dangerous.” He thought it was “Insidious and incendiary” because it “reinforces stereotypes that lead to hate crimes.” Ibish acknowledged that Arab terrorists did, in fact, bomb the World Trade Center in 1993, but said that Arab and Islamic groups are upset by “the very strong equation between Muslim religious practices and terrorism. …[Thanks to this film] Every time someone goes through the Muslim ablution, the ritual washing of hands everybody does before they pray five times a day, that image is the announcement to the viewer of the presence of violence.” Echoing such criticism the Council on American-Islamic Relations protested the insinuation that “Muslims have total disregard for human life.” The groups were “faxing and calling news organizations on a regular basis” to voice their concerns.[6][7]

Look past that. What is authentic is the depiction of jihadists, their motivation and their religious piety. And that is what makes it worth seeing. Yes, the film gets some things wrong — the military is cast in an unkind light, but what would you expect from those cowards? Hollywood hasn’t liked the military since the post-WWII baby boomers came of age.

In her NY Times film review, Janet Maslin presciently wrote, “Among the film’s most ominous shots is one panning from a New York mosque to the Manhattan skyline, which looks like one big tempting target in the context of this story.”


Here’s the The NY Times review in 1998:

The Siege (1998)
FILM REVIEW; New York as Battleground of Terrorists and Troops
Published: November 6, 1998

Attention, class: Would it be a good thing to see United States Army troops marching over the Brooklyn Bridge? Should we imprison those of foreign descent if they have putative links to terrorism? In the event of martial law, would anyone actually want Bruce Willis to be in charge? And if there was, quite literally, a bomb in a Broadway theater, wouldn’t it be sporting to let us see what was on the marquee?

”The Siege” provides the easiest of answers to all but the last question (the name of the play is tactfully shrouded in post-explosion haze) as it turns into a speechifying consideration of civil liberties and constitutional rights.

Too bad, because Edward Zwick’s ultimately sedate thriller starts out with crisply efficient style and the potential for a much more involving story. Incorporating a sense of real news and real peril, it begins with the surreptitious capture of a suspected Arab terrorist, Sheik Ahmed bin Talal, and envisions the activities of American-based disciples who seek his release. Among the film’s most ominous shots is one panning from a New York mosque to the Manhattan skyline, which looks like one big tempting target in the context of this story.

Presiding over the film’s first few terrorist attacks, which are menacingly staged, is Denzel Washington as the take-charge F.B.I. man Anthony (Hub) Hubbard. Lines like ”Put him in play!” and ”Pin a tail on her!” and ”All right, let’s roll!” establish Hub as the authoritative type, as does his way of sipping coffee from an F.B.I. mug while striding down the hall. Mr. Washington excels at bringing teasing charm to such officious types, but Hub isn’t given much chance to develop into an interesting character.

Once the film gets a few shocking explosions under its belt (like that Broadway attack, where ”the list of victims is a veritable Who’s Who of the city’s cultural leaders”), it simmers down into an internecine cat fight involving the military, the F.B.I. and (with Annette Bening as one brusque Mata Hari) the C.I.A.

Caught up in the crossfire is New York’s Arab-American community, which has raised understandable objections to images seen in ”The Siege.” Though the screenplay (by Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes and Mr. Zwick) is strenuously even-handed and even incorporates a nice-guy, Beirut-born sidekick for Hub (played ably by Tony Shalhoub), the film’s stark images of scheming Arab villains often speak louder than its diplomatic words. Bending over especially far backward, the film gives Ms. Bening’s tough cookie a complex relationship to the Arabs in her past, with lines like: ”My first boyfriend was Palestinian. You know, my father used to say they seduce you with their suffering.” When, late in the film, Arab-Americans are put in internment camps, there is the obligatory cry: ”What if it was black people? Huh? What if it was Italians? Puerto Ricans?”

Well-intentioned words don’t change either the film’s visual demonizing of Arab characters or its way of titillating the audience with terrorist stunts. As Ms. Bening’s worldly character points out, it’s often the television cameras that matter most in hostage takings. And here it’s the movie cameras, lending a deadly frisson of excitement to bombs in a schoolroom, on a city bus, at a Federal office building and in Times Square.

Mr. Washington and Ms. Bening play smart, interesting characters who never quite connect, while Mr. Willis turns himself into the loosest military cannon this side of ”Dr. Strangelove.” His arrogance is nothing if not persuasive, but it should be remembered that Mr. Willis hit his stride as an actor playing salt-of-the-earth Everyman types, without the sneer.

”The Siege” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes violence, profanity and a brief sexual situation.


Directed by Edward Zwick; written by Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes and Mr. Zwick; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Steven Rosenblum; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; costumes by Ann Roth; produced by Lynda Obst and Mr. Zwick; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 109 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Denzel Washington (Anthony Hubbard), Annette Bening (Elise Kraft), Bruce Willis (Gen. William Devereaux), Tony Shalhoub (Frank Haddad), Sami Bouajila (Samir Nazhde) and David Proval (Danny Sussman).

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