Filmmakers' Protestations Fail to Justify 'The Siege'

Judith Gabriel

The Siege
By Edward Zwick
20th Century Fox Films, 1998

For all the noise surrounding the opening of "The Siege," it turned out to be one more brainless but not innocuous action movie, undeserving of the barrage of publicity stirred up in the debate surrounding it.

"The Siege" erupted onto the American scene well before the controversial film opened in theaters in November, with widespread media coverage of threatened protests and boycotts, prompted by the initially alarming tone of promotional trailers.

Arab and Muslim Americans nervously awaited the opening of the 20th Century Fox terrorist saga starring Denzel Washington, as an FBI agent investigating an epidemic of Muslim extremist terrorist bombings in New York, and Bruce Willis, as a megalomaniac Army commander who puts Arab-Americans into an internment camp after martial law is declared, as well as Annette Bening, a CIA agent with complex intentions.

Bemoaning the protestors' gripes, director Edward Zwick and principal screenwriter Lawrence Wright (who boasted of his two-year stay in Cairo as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War) insisted they had provided ample "balance" by including one sympathetic Arab-American character, and through the film's putative civil-rights message. Lebanese-American actor Tony Shalhoub, who played the sole Arab good-guy in the film, echoed their claims, insisting that he would never appear in anything that was anti-Arab.

When the film actually opened, a few strident voices were at least momentarily subdued. At first glance, the actual filmCa high-budget production that some were quick to call "sophisticated"Cdrew sighs of relief from some quarters. There was a good-guy Arab; yes, there were innocent Arab-American and Muslim Brooklynites victims of an over-zealous government. There even was a token Arab-American spokesperson offering a humble, heavily-accented denunciation of terrorism. But the tokenism didn't fool everyone, including scores of major (non-Arab) film critics who zeroed in on the not-so-subtle racism that lurked menacingly, familiarly, throughout the film.

As for the supposedly redeeming sceneC the heart of the civil-rights pitchCwhere Arab-Americans are rounded up and herded into a makeshift Brooklyn detention camp, it failed to win over many detractors. With the utter lack of cinematic effort to bring these characters to life, it would be very hard for an audience to identify with these unrighteously corralled detainees, seen only as a blurry gaggle of extras, with sloppily-affixed keffiyehs and varianthijab, the visible signs of the nameless "other." All the dramatic attention is on the Arab/Muslim characters who pose such an overblown threat to American security and the minutia surrounding them.

With the arguable efforts of the filmmakers to provide balance, one wonders what went wrong. Could they truly not have seen their own movie? If this is what filmmakers get for purportedly trying to be pro-Arab, they might ask, why should anyone make the effort? Could it be that the level of unconscious prejudice still persisting in the collective mind has so pervasively dehumanized Islam and the Arab that even such self-avowed liberal champions as Zwick and Wright could be naively misled by their own well-intentioned efforts?

Many mainstream critics were not lulled by their protestations. Take Roger Ebert, for instance, who wrote that, "The prejudicial attitudes embodied in the film are insidious, like the anti-Semitism that infected fiction and journalism in the 1930sCnot just in Germany, but in Britain and America. While acknowledging that the filmmakers tried to balance out the villains (the CIA operative acknowledges that the U.S. itself trained the terrorists) Ebert wrote that most audiences would still leave the theater "thinking of Arabs (who are handled as an anonymous group), not of dangers to the Constitution."

Or take David Denby who wrote in The New Yorker Magazine that the film "offers a far-fetched set of circumstances and then gets all hot under the collar as it criticizes the improbable situation that the movie has set up. 'The Siege' presents an action that may tempt some people (the roundup of Arab-Americans), and then restores itself to virtue by rejecting that action. My response to thisCand maybe it will be many other people's responseCwas first to feel exceptionally queasy during the roundup and then to dismiss the ham-handed civil-liberties lectures as outright hypocrisy."

Denby wasn't surprised by the discomfort the film created among Arab-Americans "who found themselves more threatened than reassured by it. In their place, I would feel the same. The comedy of the situation is that Edward Zwick insists that he's been misunderstood." Acknowledging that the movie is fiction, Denby asked if it were really a "necessary" fiction, adding that the film was "peddling fearCand perhaps wish fulfillment."

It does absolutely nothing for the furtherance of anyone's civil rights; on the contrary, because it purports to be a message film, the insidious assumptions are even more dangerous because they stem from an unrequited, unexamined anti-Arab sentiment in Hollywood's collective consciousness. As for any societal salvation promised by the filmmakers' championing of endangered ethnic groups, such protestations came off as empty hype. No one ever expected Hollywood to accomplish such a complex task in one or two reels. And no ever went to see a formula action movie to be disabused of their prejudices.

Certainly it worked no transformation on one typical teenage boy, who turned to his buddy as they were leaving the theater: "Boy," he muttered, "Those Muslims are sure crazy!" Would the makers of this film be dumbfounded over why young Americans might utter such words after seeing their pro-Arab, pro-civil-rights message movie? Or did they miss the point, too.

Judith Gabriel is a Los Angeles based journalist, writer, and playwright. She was the news director at Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles, where she also produced and hosted "Middle East in Focus" for five years.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 25, Fall 1998.

Copyright © 1998 AL JADID MAGAZINE