Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Kingdom

Cries and Whispers

On the American military compound in Rhiyadh, two terrorists command a security vehicle and open up machine gun fire on a family softball game leaving carnage before they are killed. But like the WTC attacks, it's a two-pronged assault, the first wave of terror providing the means for a devastating explosion during the rescue efforts. For four FBI investigators it becomes a personal duty to investigate the scene and find out what happened and who was responsible. They only have five days. They're under constant surveillance by the local police. Their movements are restricted, their presence resented and the attack zone compromised in the clean-up efforts. The only thing they do have is an Exit Strategy, which has been formulated before their arrival, and things have a way of changing. But it's personal, and they have to find a way, doing an impossible task, in an unfamiliar and hostile area, without leaving a trace because it's not exactly sanctioned by the U.S. government. Yeah, good luck with that.

"The Kingdom" is directed by Peter Berg, whose previous film was "Friday Night Lights," a film I greatly admire. Berg shepherded that film over to a fascinating series on NBC, and unlike his previous series "Wonderland," has made it all the way to a second season. He started out as an actor-- was the slightly lump-headed first seduction of Linda Fiorentino in "The Last Seduction," and he starred for several seasons on "Chicago Hope," where he first started directing. Berg is a genuine find--an intelligent director who communicates everything-- gives you all you need to know, keeps things logistically decipherable, and lenses with an oblique eye that takes everything in but doesn't beat you over the head with it. An action-director who gives his audience credit for intelligence and propels the film along, trusting that the audience will keep up.

Berg has a flashy cast for "CSI: Rhiyadh" (scripter Matthew Carnehan describes it as "Imagine a murder investigation on Mars") in Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman (as well as Danny Huston, Frances Fisher, and Jeremy Piven--who basically plays his "Entourage" character working for the State department). Everyone's performance is tamped down, but the fact is they're all stars--well, Bateman is there for comedy relief--and unlike the cast of "Friday Night Lights," they stand out like sore thumbs, which actually serves the film well. But the stand-out performance is by Ashraf Barhom, whose Col. Faris Al Ghazi takes his job of providing protection for the team so seriously that he hampers their efforts at every turn. And given that his job is to stand in for the entire Arab world (almost every other local is a bit of a cypher), he carries off the role with a subtlety that doesn't betray the heavy lifting.

Berg has stated that he didn't want to make a "message" film, saying that the ratio for a film to make a point and make an audience is "98% action, and 2% message." That may be overstating the case, as there's a lot more message in the film hidden between the frames. But...though the film does put a face to the Arab world, though it does reflect the heavy-handed presence of America there, though it may bring into sharp focus the folly of having a formalized military presence in a guerilla situation and the dangers that that presence can provide in escalating the conflict--though it may say all these things that point to the folly of invading Iraq, that 98% action still has the effect of having the audience jingo-cheer on the Americans (even with Arab back-up) in a fire-fight in a hotel building. You have to have your message and the action that belies it. That's troubling. But while one contemplates that, the film moves on and delivers a spoken coda that says that, really, we're all not so different after all.


"The Kingdom" is a cheap matinee

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