It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"What if they were black people? What if they were Italian?" These words are spoken by an unseen character in "The Siege," but they get at the heart of the film, which is about a roundup of Arab-Americans after terrorist bombs strike New York City. OK, what if they were black or Italian? What if the movie was a fantasy about the Army running rampant over the civil liberties of American Irish, Poles, Koreans? Wouldn't that be the same thing as rounding up the Arab-Americans? Not really, because the same feelings are not at stake. Of all our ethnic groups, only Arabs come from nations that are currently in a state of indefinitely suspended war with the United States. The vast majority of Arab-Americans are patriotic citizens who are happy to plunge into the melting pot with the rest of us (a point the movie does make), but a minority have been much in the news, especially after the World Trade Center bombing in New York City.
Many Americans do not draw those distinctions and could not check off on a list those Arab countries we consider hostile, neutral or friendly. There is a tendency to lump together "towelheads" (a term used in the movie). Arab-Americans feel vulnerable right now to the kinds of things that happen in this movie, and that's why it's not the same thing as targeting other ethnic groups. (By way of illustration, it is unlikely, even unimaginable, after recent history, that a fantasy like "The Siege" would be made about the internment of Japanese or Jewish Americans.) Oh, the movie tries to temper its material. "They love this country as much as we do," one American says in the film, unaware of the irony in the "they" and "we." The hero, an African-American played by Denzel Washington, has an Arab-American partner (Tony Shalhoub) who is angered when his own son is mistreated. The heroine, an American spy played by Annette Bening, grew up in Lebanon and has an Arab-American lover (although it's a little more complicated than that). But the bottom line is that Arab terrorists blow up New York buses, a packed Broadway theater and FBI headquarters.
Martial law is declared, the Army moves in, and Arabs are detained without any due process. There's cat-and-mouse stuff involving the tracking of Arab bad guys; the usual computer and satellite gimmicks, and suspenseful stand-offs and shootouts. The dramatic outdoor mob, action and army scenes are well handled by director Edward Zwick.
I'm not arguing that "The Siege" is a deliberately offensive movie. It's not that brainy. In its clumsy way, it throws in comments now and then to show it knows the difference between Arab terrorists and American citizens. But the prejudicial attitudes embodied in the film are insidious, like the anti-Semitism that infected fiction and journalism in the 1930s--not just in Germany, but in Britain and America.
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