" Oh come come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil, that needn’t make you a teetotaler. "
— Edward Arnold, The Devil and Daniel Webster

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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It seems that Director Edward Zwick knows how to push my liberal buttons better than any other working filmmaker.

Zwick’s films have often made me angry. Legends of the Fall was so enthralled with Brad Pitt that it treated Aidan Quinn very badly, and Courage Under Fire was laced with patriotic military messages I was unwilling to swallow. Yet both films were very well made and solidly thought out, so even as I got angry I couldn’t condemn them. On the contrary, I liked the intellectual and emotional challenge they presented, enough so that I was really looking forward to Zwick’s next film, The Siege.

I was not disappointed.

Zwick did manage to sneak in a few right-wing jabs. Bill Clinton and Charles Manson are mentioned in the same sentence, and a clever bit of editing portrays Clinton’s foreign policy as ruthless and dishonest. Bruce Willis gets to say “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” and later makes a speech that sounds remarkably like Oliver North. But the overall shape of the movie is not so right-leaning.

The first act of the film has Hubbard (Denzel Washington) leading the New York FBI in search of a suspected terrorist. A fake bomb has gone off in a bus, and Hub thinks the terrorists will strike again, this time with a real bomb.

Hub learns that CIA agent Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) is also tracking the terrorist, which is odd because the CIA is not supposed to operate within U.S. borders. Hub has Kraft removed from the evidence hangar, in one of the movie’s unconventional yet exciting confrontations between the FBI, the CIA, and later, the Army.

Another bomb does go off in NYC, this time a real one, also in a crowded bus. Hub and his FBI team can’t work fast enough for the public’s taste. Hub and his crew work tirelessly, but public fear is just as vigilant. Among those in power, there is talk of bringing in the Army and declaring martial law. For now it is only talk.

Hub does make progress. Several suspected terrorist cells are identified and confronted. But before he can crack the case...

The terrorists strike again, this time with a hugely destructive bomb, driven in a van through the front door of the FBI headquarters, killing hundreds of agents and employees (but not Hub and his team).

With no FBI to speak of, the Army is called in and martial law is declared. General Devereaux (Willis) leads the operation. When he sets foot on Manhattan he makes a “detention speech” for the cameras. He explains that the suspect is male, of Arab descent, between the ages of 16 and 40. He asks for the city’s cooperation in complying with military detention and questioning of anyone fitting the description.

Now the film becomes a three-way game of cat and mouse, set against a surreal Manhattan-as-prison backdrop, as the CIA, FBI, and Army all close in on the suspected terrorist, each claiming jurisdiction.

The insightfully written power struggle between three factions of the U.S. Government is what is most interesting about this film. Each faction has its own motive and style. The Army, represented by Willis, is interested in order and “justice,” preferably through violence and force. The CIA, represented by Bening, is interested in deleting its own connections to terrorist training camps in other countries, camps whose graduates are the ones responsible for the bombings in New York. The FBI, led by Washington, are the film’s heroes, interested in solving the case with as little collateral damage as possible.

Arab-American groups have protested that the film portrays them badly, and they are not wrong. However, at different times during the film, I agreed and disagreed with them to different extents. For example, the terrorists of the film actually are Arab-Americans, and for quite a while, that’s all we know about them. Clearly, that reinforces a certain prejudice held in the U.S.

On the other hand, the film gives a voice to the Arab-Americans who are treated with prejudice in this country. When the “detention speech” is given, it comes from the mouth of Devereaux, whom the movie presents as something of a monster. When the film shows detention camps for Arab-American men, the camera sympathizes with them and shows the audience that this sort of prejudice is un-American.

The subject matter itself is complicated, and I don’t think there was a way to handle it without rousing some sort of anger or backlash. Nevertheless, I think Zwick handled it fairly and intelligently. He certainly wasn’t one-sided, and he seems more interested in exploring the prejudice — examining its roots and its effects — rather than merely exploiting it or condemning it without thought.

It is Zwick’s examination of controversial subjects, his unwillingness to spew the easiest, most politically correct answer, that makes me respect Zwick’s work. The Siege was no exception. It was a stimulating, challenging film, and I’m looking forward to his next project, whatever it may be.