About an hour into a red-faced yelling match, I realize that I’m not going to change my friend Sabrina’s mind. She’s intent. She wants to make a difference. She sees success and purity and nobility in The Movement and aches to be a part of it. After over an hour, I’m still no closer to understanding why. The protests and the placards all seem divisive to me, and I’ve convinced myself that The Movement is only shooting itself in its far-left foot by shouting its mantras instead of making rational arguments within the mechanism of the system. For the first time in my life, I’m the Square.
Battle in Seattle focuses on the event that made my friend want to join The Movement in the first place: The WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Specifically, it follows an array of characters – protesters, policemen, government officials, diplomats and bystanders – as the city of Seattle descends into chaos and violence. Jay (Martin Henderson) leads a band of non-violent protesters as they block the entrance ways into the World Trade Organization’s opening meeting. Mayor Tobin (Ray Liotta) struggles to balance the freedoms of those protesters, the presence of the police force, and the safety of the city. Dale (Woody Harrelson) is a policemen assigned to the downtown streets, wanting to come home at the end of the day to his pregnant wife Ella (Charlize Theron) who has her own life thrown into upheaval by the war raging in the streets.
This is not a nice movie. Battle in Seattle is not going to hold your hand and walk you through 100 minutes telling you everything is going to be okay. Because it’s not going to be okay. After the briefest of character introductions to give a feel of the main ensemble, the film drops down into the anxiety of the morning – only to continue heightening the intensity. But tragic results don’t remain looming overhead. They come crashing down on the guilty and innocent alike.
In fact, it’s difficult to figure out who the guilty and the innocent are. For the entire first act, writer/director Stuart Townsend does a deft job of balancing the complexity of the characters so that there is no real antagonist. With politically charged subject matter, it’s impossible to maintain, but until the first tear gas falls and first truncheon hits a demonstrator in the ribs, no one is clearly the enemy. The film follows an unusual model of conflict – protester v. government, government v. itself, protester v. protester, police v. protester, media v. government and protesters v. media are all strewn together in a dizzying fashion that’s held tightly together by swift dialog and rounded characters.
But it’s not the violence that’s most gripping, not what happens to Ella or the breakdown of Mayor Tobin who is legitimately trying to do the right thing. The most poignant parts of the movie belong to Dr. Maric as played by veteran actor Rade Serbedzija. Maric is at the conference to lobby for cheaper AIDS medication in Africa – but his voice is silenced by the WTO, of course, but also by the protesters who have shut down any chance he has for a meeting to take place. When the riots begin, there are no news cameras for his news conference. There are no attendees. Serbedzija captures perfectly a man who is desperate, noble, and doomed to failure by those with good intentions.
His story punctuates the brutal lows and fleeting highs that the rest of the characters march through. It’s a story arc where everyone is fighting for something they believe in – order, freedom, corporate responsibility, geopolitical disenfranchisement – but every voice is so loud, that no one is heard. It is frustrating, but it’s a frustration to revel in, a world that Townsend and company dissolve you into in order to tell a story that’s not easy to hear.
Unfortunately, there will be a group who only sees a liberal agenda in this movie. It will most likely come from both sides – people on the right decrying it as propaganda and people on the left irresponsibly championing it as proof of The Cause. Hopefully, a much larger group in the middle will see the film for what it is – something made as honestly as possible that deals with a politically and emotionally charged event. After all, if it is indeed a “political film,” I’m not sure what the political message is. That protesting works? That managing a major city during distress is difficult? Where do the personal triumphs and tragedies fit into the political message? Clearly, there is more going on with this film.
There are a few awkward editing moments and the occasional uninteresting shot decision, but they are ultimately forgivable when witnessing the scope of the movie. They don’t hinder the movie enough to really matter. Luckily, Townsend gives the audience a break from the action to continue humanizing the characters – a good-humored story from Django (Andre Benjamin) on why he fights for the sea turtles, a quiet moment between Dale and Ella in the aftermath of the day. If not for those well-placed moments, Battle in Seattle could have been pure adrenaline and no heart.
All of these words to say something basic. Perhaps I should just scrawl it on a placard: Battle in Seattle is an indie that deserves to stand out.
It’s a strong film that forces its way into your mind. You’re probably going to cry. There are moments that are going to leave you gasping for air and moments that leave you with your mouth wide open, jaw threatening the floor. It’s the type of movie that would leave my friend Sabrina frustrated, pissed off even, probably yelling obscenities at the screen. Even I couldn’t resist couching the film in political terms, but I can say with confidence as a Square, as someone who sees protesting generally as a waste of time and effort, that this film moved me an inch down the thousand steps it will take for me to understand my friend’s point of view. If you see that inch as minuscule but worthy or if you view it as a great distance, then you’re missing the point. Whether I was moved an inch or not was not the goal of Battle of Seattle. The goal is to move the audience mentally, emotionally and to entertain – and in that, it succeeds in miles.
The Upside: Intense, humanistic ensemble work aided by strong writing and direction.
The Downside: A few minor timing issues in the editing.
On the Side: Stuart Townsend’s first film as a director.