The Siege (1998) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This film came out in 1998, but you've probably forgotten about it already, despite its $70 million budget. It was directed by Edward Zwick, a brilliant and underrated director, whose Glory is considered one of the best films of the past decade. Despite that, and despite the presence of Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington and Annette Bening, it disappeared quickly from the radar.

It was generally panned as an incendiary and exaggerated fantasy which insulted both those in the Middle East and the American government. In fact, several Arab groups charged the film with perpetuating negative ethnic stereotypes. The director of the Islamic Council of New England said, "The Siege hideously distorts the religion of Islam". Some protest groups suggested that the film equates Islam with violence.

Here is what happened in the film:

Terrorists cause three major explosions in New York City. In the first, a city bus blows up in public. In the second, a Broadway theater is blown up during a special performance attended by the cream of New York society. In the third, the FBI headquarters is leveled, and hundreds die.

New York activities change. Theaters are darkened. Kids are kept home from school. Crowds harass those who look like they come from the Middle East. The American public demands massive retaliation, without understanding that such overreaction is what motivated the terrorists to begin with. New York City is placed under martial law, and the people of the racial groups most likely to be terrorists are herded into detention centers. Federal agencies haggle over jurisdiction. 

(In fact the film does NOT perpetuate negative Arab stereotypes. The terrorists are Arabs, to be sure, reflecting a condition that does exist in reality. The film shows how right-wingers use those terrorist acts by a very few people as an excuse for racism against all Arabs and Islam.)

The events are shown to be an escalation of events begun with the missile strikes ordered by President Clinton. Actual footage of Clinton is intercut with the fantasy.

As you can see, some of the events were exaggerated, others were actually understated. The general concept was eerily prescient.

The film is a pretty good nail-biter of a thriller, not without faults, but generally excellent at maintaining tension. It was a taut film to begin with, and it seems eerie given recent reality.



male: Sami Boajila does a brief nude scene which exposes his entire body, but no genitals are seen.

The biggest weakness is the stirring-speeches-rising-music Hollywood ending, which I'm about to spoil for you. Denzel Washington, the heroic FBI agent, not only got the last of the terrorists, but managed to arrest the general who was using martial law as an excuse to torture and kill his prisoners. (As well as to take and detain prisoners with no evidence.)  

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 2.35:1

  • minimal features

Washington made plenty of dramatic speeches, and ended up arresting the general based on a warrant issued by a civilian court. Huh??? Needless to say, the military authority supersedes all civil authorities in times of martial law. Irrespective of what crimes the general may have committed, Washington's attempt to arrest him in a period of martial law declared under the president's war powers was, in fact, an act of treason. Washington made plenty of speeches about the law while he was breaking it. In effect, he was walking into the White House and arresting Truman for dropping the bomb. Pretty silly.

But the movie would have been perfectly OK if Washington could have made his arrest after the president revoked the military's authority over the city. Then he could have held the general to account for war crimes.

(Just as could have happened to Truman after the war, and probably would have if Japan had somehow survived the atomic blasts and won the war.) 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: a hair under three stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4, Apollo 72.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 61% positive reviews, 100% from the top critics. (An inaccurate assessment from RT, in my opinion. They counted Ebert's review as positive. Read it and make up your own mind)

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 5.9/10, Apollo users 61/100 
  • With their dollars ... it cost $70 million to make, and grossed only $40 million at the US box office.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. A powerful and tension-filled thriller. One scary-ass movie, given what has really happened since.

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