Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Kingdom

As an action-adventure movie, director Peter Berg's The Kingdom is competent but not spectacular. Much of the time, it reminded me of a television show, something like "CSI: Riyadh." Flashy editing, glossy cinematography, attractive stars with a reasonable amount of charisma reciting rapid-fire, clever-enough dialogue, solving a rather straight-forward mystery with a twist. It's the same thing you'd get every Monday-Friday on the major TV networks with a few big action scenes and some more cussing.

If this were all the film had it mind, I wouldn't knock it too badly. Sure, it's maybe a bit inappropriate, considering America's role in a horrific Middle-Eastern war, to make a film in which a bunch of super-terrific American FBI agents kick some Saudi Arabian ass. But an action film is an action film, and Berg manages to direct with enough confidence and style to make the film reasonably entertaining.

Unfortunately, the film strains for credibility on the major foreign policy issues facing our nation today. I don't really care what Aspen Extreme star Peter Berg and first-time screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (brother of Smoking Aces and Narc director Joe Carnahan) think about the oil industry or American intervention into Middle Eastern conflicts, and nothing in The Kingdom gives me any reason to think they might have some insight into these matters.

Berg opens with one of those quick montages giving you the complete history of the film's subject in five minutes using helpful animated diagrams.. In this case, it's the history of Saudi Arabia. When we come to the 9/11 attacks, we see a big black cartoon plane collide with a cartoon building...classy...

What is the purpose of this sequence? You don't need to know any of this information to understand the film, because its politics are utterly without depth, complexity or nuance. There are Arabs, and all of them are shady (except the one Good Arab), and then on the other side, there are the Americans who are good and pure of heart and noble and brave and awesome at fighting and only want to do the right thing and go home to their proud families. They clash, the forces of good prevail, roll credits. This is the illusion of information. All the physical manifestations of being taught something - names, dates, stock footage - but nothing actually informative, and nothing that will inform the actual action of the film. Weird...

After cramming 70 years of "history" in the time it takes to list a few executive assistants and gaffers, the action begins inside a Riyadh compound for Western oil company executives. It's a beautiful day in which some beautiful white families and enjoying wholesome, extremely good-natured and decidedly pasty pastimes. (They're even listening to Dave Matthews Band!)

Then, some swarthly types in Saudi National Guard uniforms start shooting up the place, machine gunning random civilians, and all hell breaks loose. This is not some random attack, but a coordinated jihad, apparently the work of a local radical (and "Bin Laden wannabe") named Abu Hamza. A series of timed explosions combine, over the course of the day, to take the life of a few dozen oil company employees and two FBI agents.

FBI agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his team, well, shucks, they were all really good friends with one of the agents who died in Riyadh, so they insist on heading over there to do a proper investigation. Berg and Carnahan start with some pretty wacky assumptions in this opening sequence with the FBI, and these assumptions cloud everything else that happens in the movie.

Basically, this is the story of good-natured Americans who want to go to Saudi Arabia to do a good thing and all the obstacles they face along the way. Because we in the audience know that Jamie Foxx and his team (Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman, ably giving their flat, cardboard "agent" characters flashes of personality) are do-gooders trying to do good, we never doubt their motives, and this turns everyone who second-guesses them into antagonists.

But most of the people who collide with Foxx & Co. during the course of the film (terrorists aside) make a lot of sense. Attorney General Gideon Young (Danny Huston, slimy as usual) hesitates to authorize an FBI trip into the heart of Saudi Arabia because it might threaten the position of the Saudi Royal Family, which needs to maintain the appearance of opposition to American hegemony in the region. Ambassador Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven) is concerned for the agents' personal safety and the fallout should one of them come to harm in The Kingdom. (Just think of how strange this portrayal is, an American administration that doesn't want to go impress our will on Middle Eastern nations while the intelligence community insists that we go ahead and intervene. It's the exact opposite from how this story played out in 2003.)

These guys are presented as scumbags, cowards who want to keep Our Heroes from doing Their Job. But they may very well be right, particularly in view of how the story plays out. Why should Americans go to foreign countries and solve their crimes for them? I'm not saying that there's no case to be made that, if Americans died in a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, we should go over there and investigate, but it's at least a conversation worth having. Berg's film just operates from the position that American can do no wrong - that wrongdoing is antithetical to what America's all about - so of course we should always be allowed to go traipsing through other countries, solving mysteries and helping out strangers. We're's what we do...

In one scene, a very kind, patient Saudi general (Ashraf Barhom) explains to Fleury that his team will not be allowed to actually handle evidence, but will simply be there to observe the work of the Saudi police. Foxx plays the scene with maximum macho aggression. He gets in the Saudi's face and announces that he will not follow orders, that this is not how his team works. Again, I'm not justifying the Saudis behavior, but no wonder the rest of the world views Americans as testosterone-soaked, insecure bullies. That's how we're now proudly depicting ourselves.

I just find this position, lauding American Exceptionalism, objectionable, and Berg's film only compounds the problem as it goes along. It has no choice, really - once the decision has been made to present America as a beacon for light and justice in the dark, shadowy world of Saudi Arabia, there's no way to proceed but to make the Saudis themselves shifty and untrustworthy, to paint all those who oppose American intervention into foreign affairs as either terrorists or cowards. (The Republican Party has been operating from essentially this position for years.)

It's a very slippering slope that eventually leads to Berg filming Muslims at prayer while suspense music plays in the background. We're good, they're antagonizing us, and in movie-ese, this means they're bad. Very unfortunate; this is the sort of thing that will play in the Middle East and convince people who rightfully should be our allies that we hate them intensely.

Of course, I'm thinking about these issues more than the film seems to. Like I said, it tries its best to have something to say about Saudi Arabia and the oil industry and Middle-Eastern wars, but it's just too vapid. It can't get there. Honestly, save the opening Four Minute History Class, the thing could have been made in the 1990's and been no different. All you have to know is that Muslims are really angry and they have all kinds of weird rules for their wimminfolk and they don't take kindly to our freedoms (again, except for the one nice Arab who loves Americans and speaks perfect English and wants to help however he can.)

The film fares better as straight-up action, although the good stuff only appears in the sproadically-intense final half-hour. The case solved in an unsatisfying manner, the American team is on their way to the airport and back home when they are ambushed by Abu Hamza's extremists. There's a thoroughly ludicrous but expertly-shot alley shootout that reminded me of the similarly-silly minivan attack in Clear and Present Danger. And Jennifer Garner does an awesome job with her lone fight scene (really, the film's only scene of hand-to-hand combat). She's not much as an actress, but extremely convincing at kicking ass.

But that makes sense...She is, after all, an American. That's what we do.

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