Wednesday, November 11, 1998

The Siege

Posted By on Wed, Nov 11, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Hollywood has always flirted with history -- revising, recycling or replacing the truth with hyperbolic narratives of patriotic behavior.

This is the stuff that American heroes are made of, the ones who save the day while reminding the nation: that the President of the United States, human as he may be (The American President), is still the most powerful man in the world (Air Force One); that he's worth dying for (In the Line of Fire); that the 4th of July could become a global holiday (Independence Day); that history is a synonym for fiction (JFK, Nixon); that the nation is not going to be defeated by earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids, viruses, aliens or terrorists ("Nuke the bastards!"); that America is not about to negotiate.

Unlike other glamorous political thrillers, however, The Siege is a cautionary tale. Inspired by the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, The Siege asks a number of dangerous questions: At what point does the protection of the country's citizens conflict with the protection of their rights? How would the government respond to a terrorist attack from within? What would happen if New York were to repeat the experiences of Jerusalem, London, Paris or Athens? In the words of director Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire), "does one have to become a monster in order to fight a monster?"

Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington), the head of the Joint FBI-NYPD Terrorism Task Force, Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), the undercover CIA operative, and General Devereaux (Bruce Willis) face this dilemma when a bus blows up in Brooklyn and terrorist cells make their presence known in New York.

There are terrifying moments in The Siege and there are laughable scenes, as Willis acts as if he's still inside The 5th Element waiting for Armageddon. But the character of Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub), the Lebanese-American FBI agent, and the film's suggestion that this attack is a repercussion of the U.S.'s international activities, present us with a different kind of fear.

It is the face of the gravest, ultimate nightmare, the moment when, in the name of the Constitution, the Constitution is annulled.

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