Arlington Road vs. The Siege

As if pulp from an unwritten Tom Clancy thriller, The Siege can be unsatisfying, unlike Arlington Road.

There’s something about Western culture that inclines us toward fear of the unknown. Perhaps it’s our global economic dominance on an otherwise poor planet. In the land of opportunity, its children playing “king of the hill” are inherently anxious about defending their imperialism. The Siege would have us think so.

Or perhaps it’s more primal than all of that. Perhaps, our paranoia stems from good old fashioned suspicion of our neighbors, born out of jealousy and isolationism. Underlying this basic fear is the slight possibility that the Jones’ across the street are extremists in some movement or another. Arlington Road would have us think so.

Whatever the case, the paranoid instincts we Americans harbor lead us to theorizing conspiracies when assassinations occur, or assuming encounters of aliens when sleep is lost. Such is the popularity of films like JFK or television shows like “The X Files”. True or no, they make great escapist entertainment.

Similarities

  • Shadowy characters
  • Paranoia
  • Mistrust of big government

Edward Zwick has a keen sense for depicting bigotry and intolerance on the big screen. He did it effectively in Glory, in which Morgan Freeman lead a black regiment in the Civil War. Zwick struck again in Courage Under Fire, another fine film of subjective perspectives and biases of Army servicemen as they retell the last days of their commanding female officer. And to round it all out, he directed the tragic Legends of the Fall. All of these films are tightly wrapped into one with The Siege.

As if pulp from an unwritten Tom Clancy thriller, Siege is big and splashy with federal power struggle and international intrigue. Think Air Force One, minus its true blue president. In his place is a shadowy government with ambiguous characters. There also is a lack of fine lines between the bad guys and the good guys.

Denzel Washington plays Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard, the head of an FBI Anti-Terrorism Task Force. He symbolizes the bastion of freedom and human rights. His ambiguous counterpart Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) is high in the CIA echelon, appointed by the government to help Hub in locating a hostile terrorist group. While representing Uncle Sam, it seems that she really serves her own agenda. Finally there is Bruce Willis playing the ever-present evil government officer General Devereaux, the embodiment of McCarthyist machination. Devereaux is a hardened G.I. Joe, deployed with an Army regiment to declare martial law in New York and stop the outbreaks of terrorist bombings.

Arlington Road paints a paranoid picture of suburban American life. The film was directed by Mark Pellington, who nearly came out of the woodwork to pull this one off. He’s got a winner. With Ehren Kruger behind the script – who is also writing Scream 3 – the characters have a similar wraithlike mystique. Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a lonely college history professor who teaches a class on domestic terrorism. His predisposition is decidedly skeptic, since his FBI agent / wife was killed in a tragic wilderness standoff.

Faraday’s new neighbor, Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins), is All-American. He’s a civil engineer, married, with two kids and a dog. But when Faraday gets his neighbor’s mail by mistake, Lang’s image begins to deteriorate. He discovers that Lang is using the alias of a deceased man, and is hiding a set of blueprints in his study.

The backdrop behind Faraday’s paranoia is masterfully established. From the very first scene (one of two incredibly powerful and haunting slow-motion sequences) in which Faraday finds the Lang boy bloody on the street, his suspicion is elevated. He’s told later that the boy was in a fireworks accident, but from whom did he learn about explosives?

We also attend Faraday’s classes at the university, listening to his fringe opinions of the government regarding several fictional terrorist incidents modeled after Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, and the Unabomber. Faraday suspects that the government is manipulating the media in giving the public what it wants: closure. He points out that in each case, an intelligent network of conspirators is never discovered – always one man with a name. Never mind that we know nothing of the man’s motivations. As long as we have a name to attribute to the event then we are sated, and our sense of safety returns.

Differences

  • Source of terror
  • Credibility of characters

One of the differences between these two films is the objects of their paranoid delusions. Siege directs its hostility toward the Arab-American community. The bombings in New York are instigated by radical Muslims, outraged by the abduction of one of their religious leaders by the U.S. military.

Zwick may have gone too far this time. There was heavy criticism from the Arab community when Siege was released because of the film’s negative portrayal of Muslims. I don’t blame them. Because of the radical minority within Arab culture, they’ve been stereotyped in movies like the Muslim fanatics in True Lies or the disgruntled Eastern Bloc terrorist of The Peacemaker. Arabs have become the new Hollywood enemy since the fall of Communism, and understandably so.

For one, we Westerners crave black and white, clearly defined lines between the good guys and the bad guys. Star Wars is probably the best movie example. Unfortunately, this lends both to our sense of patriotism and our propensity toward bigotry. In recent years, several filmmakers have shaken these polar notions with more realistic shades of gray. But the majority of cinematic villains has always been any particular political group contrary to Capitalist America (Communists, Nazis, etc.). And now the mantle has been passed to an ethnic group.

Yet there are several hot spots in the Middle East where anti-American sentiment runs rabid. Despite what percentage of the Arab population they represent, Muslim militants are in the news every other day, the most tragic being the NYC World Trade Center bombing. So it is at least natural, albeit insufferable, that Muslims would become the newest movie villains.

In Arlington, Pellington does a great job fictionalizing the paranoia by manipulating the audience’s basic mistrustfulness of others and Big Brother, yet without sacrificing realism. Instead of focusing on a particular people group as in Siege, Arlington plays and preys on our more generic suspicions. For all of Siege‘s Muslim extremists, Arlington reveals conspiracy in Caucasian America. By weaving in actual footage from Waco, Oklahoma City, and other domestic terrorist sites, the movie certainly carries its weight in documentary-like realism.

But it wisely leaves any exact sources of terror open to the viewer, not all that unlike Hitchcockian suspense. Faraday’s duplicitous neighbor is as creepy as Jimmy Stewart’s in the Hitchcock classic Rear Window. I’m also reminded of the excellent film Deceived, with its mistaken identities and close-ups of eyeballs through cracked doorways. The anxiety is feverish.

Half of the success of Arlington rests solely on its credible actors. Joan Cusack plays Lang’s bizarre and quirky wife. Tim Robbins makes a good turn as a borderline psychotic. He maintains a glint of insanity in his eyes throughout the film; we never know fully where he stands. Says Lang to Faraday regarding objectivity, “They say that you’re never as wise as when you’re a child. We’ll never think that clearly again.” Chilling.

But the brunt of the energy is carried by Jeff Bridges. He plays a wonderful frantic. He handled tragedy so delicately in White Squall, the unfairly underrated sea drama in which he played a captain of an alternative naval school. From this extreme to the other as a neo-hippie pothead in The Big Lebowski, his acting range is quite amazing.

Siege, on the other hand, didn’t have as many positives. With their credibility at stake, the actors had a delicate topic to tackle. One would think that the names “Bening” and “Washington” together would surely spell chemistry. Bening performed well as the compromising shady agent. She advises Hub, “Deciding right from wrong is easy; the hard part is deciding which wrong is most right.” Unfortunately, Denzel isn’t given very much freedom, certainly not like his role in Glory.

Then, we have Bruce “the Scowl” Willis. I’m just not convinced in the bad-guy version of Bruce. He tried it once before with The Jackal and failed abysmally. He does a better job with it here, but retains that dumb grimace. I’m afraid Zwick has to be blamed in part for this. Once again (as is so popular in Hollywood), the military and its offspring are given a caricatured makeover. Willis’ General Devereaux first declares martial law in the city of New York. Then, without due process, he quarantines the Arab-Americans into internment camps for questioning. The scene is similar to the historical round-up of Japanese-Americans during World War II for fear of espionage.

At this point, I had the impression that Zwick found himself in a balancing act of vilifying the right people. On the surface, Siege appears to be a cut and dry terrorist film. By the last act though, he flops bad guys and points fingers at the government. The issue at stake here is the intrusion of civil liberties.

We saw the same topic raised from a different angle in the Bruckheimer blockbuster Enemy of the State. It weighed the cost of national security against the sacrifice of individual liberties via high-tech surveillance. A very pertinent theme, Enemy of the State dodges answering it in full. Probably a wise decision.

Less the edgy style, Siege plunges right into the debate and gets mired down by the consequences. Devereaux finally spirals out of control and tortures an innocent Arab to death before Hub barges in to save the day. Siege was hard to watch in the same way that A Time to Kill was. Both present these completely social taboos that only have one politically correct conclusion. If you find The Siege unsavory, then stick with Arlington Road.

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