September 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: The Siege (1998)

September's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) is another movie that exists not only as a reason why I started this feature, but as a reason why I enjoy writing about movies at all. Last month I outlined how Falling Down was a real-time representation of 1992 Los Angeles. While that movie was of its time, The Siege was ahead of its time. Like eerily, presciently ahead of its time.

I'm tempted to call it one of the most important movies of the last decade, though not necessarily one of the best. In fact, I'm not even going to defend the quality of the film itself here at all, so maybe I should say
The Siege is "underappreciated" more so than it's "underrated". I just recommend you see it, even though I know the message will be lost on people if they get distracted by the plot or the acting or the actions of some of the characters.

There's no sense in discussing this movie unless you're able to completely shift your mind's perspective back to 1998. I'll help: the biggest news story of the year was President Bill Clinton's infidelity and impeachment; most of the American public didn't use the internet and a good number of people didn't know what it was; Apple unveiled the iMac; The Offspring were a popular band while Armageddon ruled the box office; gas cost $1.15 a gallon; "Friends" and "ER" were the most popular shows in a television line-up that had yet to know something called "reality TV" (I believe the first "Survivor" was in 1999 or 2000); you could see your friends and family off at the airport all the way to the gate; the U.S. announced the first budget surplus in 30 years; the first infamous school shooting occurred in Jonesboro, AR (Columbine would memorably come on 4/20/99); and for most of the world, what came to mind when people said "terrorist" was the IRA in Northern Ireland.

So now it's the fall of 1998, and a movie called The Siege quietly makes its way into movie theaters. Director Edward Zwick's most important film to date has been Glory and there's some excitement that he is working with Denzel Washington again. Oddly, the original screenplay was written by a New Yorker columnist named Lawrence Wright - his first ever film. Nobody really knows what to expect from this guy.

Opening on November 6, The Siege grosses $13 million at the box office, second to The Waterboy's $40 million - an amount which, coincidentally, will be the total gross earned by The Siege before it fades out of theaters as a critical and commercial failure.

And then September 11, 2001, happens.

And then the The Siege becomes, according to Wright, "the most-rented movie in America."

9/11 created a flood of overwhelming emotions: fear, grief, paranoia, anger, and confusion, among others of course. Those who had seen The Siege three years earlier briefly experienced an additional funny feeling: déjà vu.

"Wait a minute, what?

A major terrorist attack in Manhattan? Local and federal law enforcement agencies are in a state of chaos? The terrorists were thought to be Islamic extremists? They lived and worked in the U.S.? Now the government is detaining and torturing anyone who looks Arab, is Muslim, or has an Arabic-sounding name?

Haven't we seen this before?"

Because it's almost impossible for our minds to forget that 9/11 happened, I have to reemphasize how foreign so much of this was in 1998. Granted, the first World Trade Center attack had occurred and al-Qaeda had just carried out the embassy attacks, but the American public was not in a state of fear. Osama bin Laden was not a household name. We didn't know what a terror alert or an air marshal was and we couldn't point out of Afghanistan on a map of the Middle East (unfortunately I fear that's still the case with most of us). So while terrorism itself was not an original idea for a movie, the attack and response portrayed in The Siege was, like 1994's True Lies, simply not something Americans could connect with on any level because it just seemed too exaggerated.

Hmm, actually, forget that last part. Audiences flocked to see not one but two even more fantastical disasters in New York City just a few months earlier in 1998: the horrendous remake of Godzilla pulled in over $130 million in May, while the aforementioned Armageddon raked in better than $200 million in July. Despite featuring two established stars in their respective second movies of the year - Bruce Willis (who also starred in Armageddon) and Denzel Washington (who carried He Got Game, which happened to open the same weekend as Godzilla) - The Siege pretty much flopped. Why? Bad reviews? Maybe, because there were plenty. But don't a lot of terribly reviewed movies open in the #1 spot at the box office? I think there was another reason people avoided this movie, but to this day I can't really figure out what it was.

Maybe this an appropriate time to include the trailer, then, because I want to get back to hammering home this point about the film's prescience. This is before 9/11, remember. Listen very carefully and tell me the dialogue here doesn't send chills down your spine:

Again, before 9/11 and the "War on Terror" and the Patriot Act and anything else that has since completely changed our daily lives. It's as if this movie was actually used by both the terrorists beforehand and our government afterwards. Is Wright to blame for 9/11? No, I'm obviously not serious at all. It's just that the coincidences in The Siege are so incredible that you almost have to start reaching for completely irrational explanations like that.

Maybe I should just read the book. You see, that unknown screenwriter Lawrence Wright turned out to be a bestselling author after his days at the New Yorker, and in 2007 he won a little award called the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for his highly acclaimed book, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11". I bet it would be fascinating to read that book and compare it to this movie (which I admittedly haven't seen in quite a few years).

No, it's not perfect and yes, it's a little messy, but as the 10 year anniversary of The Siege approaches in another month, I consider it more than worthy of a revisit. I don't even know what it would be like to watch this movie again now. To some people it would probably seem simple minded or offensive or somehow inaccurate with what we now know about so much of its content, but if you haven't seen it and you have any interest in the themes of civil liberties, human rights, interrogation techniques, religious extremism, or military intervention, and if you can successfully take a trip in your mind back to 1998, then The Siege is an absolute must-see.


  1. Interesting ... "The Seige" was on
    TV recently and though I didn't watch it, I did think in passing how similar the scenario was to 9-11. Thanks for driving the point home. Perhaps Wright knew something back then ...

  2. Hehe, yeah, did I hit you over the head with its relation to 9/11 enough times? Hearing the lines in that trailer makes my stomach turn. I don't know anything about this guy Wright, but wow.

    Just an addendum here: I probably should have included some tidbits about the controversy surrounding this movie when it was released. The Arab-American community was highly offended and organized a series of protests that were thought to damage the PR/marketing/promotional campaign for the movie. Maybe it worked.

  3. Denzel Washington seems to play the same character in every movie. The Siege felt like a sequel to Crimson Tide to me. Way too conventional, way too preachy, not nearly gritty or disturbing enough.

    Denzel is only part of the problem. Edward Zwick was even then too over the hill for this material. I remember it being released right around the time of Fight Club, Three Kings and Magnolia and thinking how lame it was in comparison.

    So, I guess I didn't like it.

    I will say something nice though: I wish Annette Bening was in every movie.

  4. Ok, you got me with the trailer. To be more accurate, Denzel's speech about the "kids in stadiums" and all that really did it. I'm at the forefront of the people that think that all the crap we have to go through at our airports (which, admittedly, isn't much in the grand scheme of things) is so much of a charade and altogether pointless. But that's another rant for another day, I suppose.

  5. Hmmm...I'm gonna have to check out The Siege. I've seen it on renal shelves and on TV but never stuck around long enough to even get a basic plot outline.

    I do love Denzel though.

  6. I think you may be one year off with those Joe (they were all fall of '99), but I can't argue your point as Fight Club and Magnolia are two of my favorite movies. Three Kings is pretty underrated, too, for that matter. Either way, as I said I can't defend the quality of The Siege very far - just the importance of the issues in it.

    Denzel is definitely not an actor with a lot of range, but when he challenges himself (Malcolm X, The Hurricane) I think he proves his chops. But for the most part you're right, it's either cop (I didn't realize it but he's a cop or soldier in like 10 movies) or inspirational coach guy.

    That was the first time I'd seen the trailer in like a decade, Fletch, and it was pretty shocking. I recommend you see it given your shared annoyance/interest with security measures.

    It's more than meets the eye, Scott, and a solid performance by Denzel, even if it's not his most memorable.

  7. Dan, I admit I wasn't a fan of this as a FILM, but your entire essay here doesn't attempt to defend it as such, but rather to promote its essence, its sociopolitical importance. As such your piece is imune from aesthetic disclaimer. The purp;ose of your wonderful site is in large measure to draw attention to films that may evince far more than meets the eye, and that such properties shouldn't always be judged by techical elements. I thought the film had too many "explosions" an dthe ending was unsatisfactory, but these concern pale if the film somehow portends the unraveling of events, in this sense not events that benefit humanity.

    To argue for a film's "importance" as you have here overides any intrinsic artistic concerns.

  8. Thanks for the pass on this one, Sam, and for clarifying not only my take on it but my purpose for this site as well!

    I'm not out to champion bad movies, only to encourage a more intentionally introspective view of all movies. Like the recent Lakeview Terrace, The Siege is a film best experienced through a personal or cultural lens more so than a cinematically critical one.

    Thanks again - I appreciate your thoughts as always.


Related Posts with Thumbnails