Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
Nine years ago, I remember reading about the Seattle WTO protests with only a dim understanding of the controversy. I am therefore glad that Stuart Townsend, the writer/director of Battle in Seattle, begins his movie with a brief history of the WTO. After the introduction, Townsend tries to give a complete portrait what happened. He clearly has an agenda, but does a good job of giving a top-down account of the protest.
Rather than focusing broadly on the clash between police and protesters, Townsend introduces the audience to a few key players. The mayor (Ray Liotta) struggles to have all voices heard safely. Inside the talks, a public health expert (Rade Serbedzija) desperately tries to give voice to his cause. A journalist (Connie Nielsen) becomes increasingly moved by the protesters. A cop (Woody Harrelson) and his wife (Charlize Theron) just try and make it through in one piece. The activists, all impassioned, do not necessarily share a collective voice. Once these groups clash, it becomes a clusterfuck.
Townsend employs is documentary-like approach – he effectively gives the audience a taste of confusion and violence. Soon political outrage gives way to personal outrage. Many of these characters have wounds from their past, and the charged climate only exacerbates their anger. Townsend’s approach is mostly successful, but sometimes forced. There is a major plot development that attentive viewers will be able to guess immediately. The development seems too on-the-nose (think of Crash‘s contrivances), but at least it leads to the movie’s most effective political scene. The poignancy of the scene ultimately dwarfs the corniness necessary to get there.
The performances are all realistic. Ray Liotta is noteworthy for portraying a decent man who runs out of options. Connie Nielson, a good conduit for the audience, effectively transitions from observer to participant. By that same token, the activists are like other radicals portrayed in movies before – they’re static characters, and never particularly compelling. As a passionate man with an endlessly positive attitude, Andre 3000 is the most memorable. My favorite, however, is the public health expert. Instead of subverting the talks, the man tries to work towards the best possible solution. It’s difficult to watch him fight for the poor as listeners become increasingly interested in the chaos outside.
Battle in Seattle will evoke strong reactions. As I was watching, a man shouted chants at the screen (I promptly told him to shut up). Townsend makes many political points, and different ones will resonate with different people. I was struck by the stupidity and misplaced anger of the anarchists. I was struck by Andre 3000’s “Tortoise and the hare” approach. I was struck by how a powerful few impact billions, and yet have little accountability. Despite some minor plot grievances, the movie is worth watching. Townsend is a solid director – I would chalk his missteps to the fact that this movie is his first. He has acted before, but never in anything good (Tom Cruise is a better Lestat). If I were him, I’d stick to directing. I’d like to see what he does next.
Here are some other movies that present a massive canvas of urban political violence:
The Battle of Algiers. You know a movie is special the Pentagon, the IRA, and the Black Panthers use it to study guerrilla warfare. Released in the late 1960s, The Battle of Algiers is a stunning portrayal of how native Algerians fought against the French government. To say its was release was controversial is an understatement. It galvanized political figures on both sides of the spectrum, and the movie was banned in France for five years. It eschews traditional war movie clichés: instead of focusing a tight band of stereotypical characters, the viewer watches events from a larger scale. The effect is similar to that of a news reel. As the movie continues, we watch tactics develop, not characters. The stakes rise as Algerian children plant bombs and the French torture their suspects. Some sequences, the riot scenes in particular, are absolutely stunning to watch. It’s hard to believe that no single frame is documentary footage.
Bloody Sunday. Before making United 93 and the Bourne sequels, director Paul Greengrass made this dramatization of the infamous clash between the NICRA and British troops. The movie centers on a civil rights leader (James Nesbitt, the cop from Match Point) as he tries to corral a peaceful protest. Some minor characters are given a chance to develop, but most of the movie centers on the broader conflict, and how quickly it escalated. Helplessness and confusion are the overriding emotions here. A series of mis-communications between military HQ and troops on the ground created a deadly conflict. Greengrass makes it abundantly clear that the British troops fired first. If you’ve seen the Bourne sequels before, you know Greengrass’ style: tight shots, with a confusing sense of space. While such an approach is tedious for an action movie, it serves this subject matter well. As with Battle in Seattle, the viewer’s disorientation is not unlike what troops and protesters might have felt. Yes, the movie features the U2 song, but it is tastefully done over the closing credits.
Chicago 10. Released earlier this year, this strange documentary portrays the trial of those who organized the protest of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The courtroom scenes are animated, and voice actors read from the transcripts. The movie also features traditional news footage of cops brutalizing the protesters. Hank Azaria, who regularly voices Moe, is particularly noteworthy as Abbie Hoffman, the famous Yippie who deliberately subverted the court’s authority. Director Peter Morgan does a good job of presenting how the defendants turned the courtroom into a circus. Some moments, as when Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin come to court in judicial robes, are genuinely funny. It’s surreal when the defense calls Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer to the stand. Eventually, these tactics bring the judge (Roy Scheider) to a breaking point – he has Bobby Seale bound and gagged. As I watched, I couldn’t help but feel anger as the authorities wantonly abused their power. For a movie about the 60s, Chicago 10 feels pretty relevant.
That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I need the heimlich.