Thursday, July 3, 2008

The terror and the profit: Jamie Foxx and the emotional manipulations of The Kingdom

A new documentary style has evolved in feature films that uses handheld cameras to create an edgy shakiness to a scene. I noticed it in “United 93,” but also especially in A Mighty Heart and The Bourne Ultimatum (directed by the same guy who directed United 93). Using the same techniques, Universal’s The Kingdom could serve as Hollywood’s reply to Muslim terrorism, this time in Saudi Arabia. Directed by Peter Berg and co-produced by Michael Mann, The Kingdom uneasily blends together documentary realism with old-fashioned Hollywood action, playing on our wish for narrative coherence out of the disjointed panorama of terrorist suicide bombings, kidnappings, and explosions in the Middle East. While technically accomplished, the film highlights how difficult it is to reduce extremist militant ideologies to good guy vs. bad guy Hollywood formulas.

For one thing, real terrorist acts deliberately strike up feelings of terror, outrage, and vengeance, so I felt emotionally manipulated when the film begins with several men breaking into a Western housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and strafing a bunch of softball-playing Americans with machine gun fire. Soon after, someone wearing a Saudi police uniform blows himself up, killing more innocent civilians. Then, when the response team shows up, yet another explosive device goes off, leaving a big crater and destruction reminiscent of the Oklahoma City bombings. Back in Washington DC, FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) learns of the incidents while visiting his son’s elementary school, and once again I felt emotionally manipulated due to all of the cute kids cropping up saying things like “Daddy, are there bad people out there?” I guess the filmmakers wanted to emphasize how we are all innocent children before we turn into terrorists and vengeful FBI agents hating each other. Still, there are few things more calculatedly gut-wrenching than visiting the child of a man who has just been murdered, so Fleury does just that.

Anyway, Fleury quickly assembles a small A-team of investigative agents to go visit Riyadh. He encounters lots of (perfectly reasonable) diplomatic opposition, but he finagles a way to get his crew in, which includes explosives expert Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), forensics examiner Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), and intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). They arrive to find the Saudi police captain in charge of the investigation, Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) reluctant to let them do much. Housed in a makeshift arrangement in a gym, Fleury and his crew chafe under all of the restrictions placed upon them. They cannot touch evidence, or talk to anyone, but they do find the detonator for one of the bombs, and gradually Fleury and Al Ghazi get to know and like one another as if they were in a buddy cop film like 48 Hours. As they slowly win the trust of the police and the local Prince Ahmed bin Khaled, the FBI agents get closer and closer to the terrorist cell. At one point, Fleury says “America is not perfect,” but they can investigate well, and for a time the film takes on the suspense of a detective story.

As the film turns to the usual violence-filled conclusion, I kept thinking of the complexities of A Mighty Heart. In that film based on a true story, a reporter, Danny Pearl, gets kidnapped and eventually beheaded by an extremist group in Pakistan. For much of the film, his wife and the audience have no idea what is going on, and the filmmakers depict the Pakistan milieu as a maze where deciphering who did what becomes enormously complex, so of course the movie tanked in the box office. In The Kingdom, the filmmakers confront a similar situation by having the FBI team show up, figure things out, and blow stuff up. Even with Jamie Foxx’s acting ability and righteous outrage, The Kingdom strains credulity. At one point his character asks the Saudi police captain “Which side do you think Allah is on?” For all of its pretensions of taking on contemporary political issues, Universal Studios proves it is mostly on the side of making money.


Roy said...

I fully agree with your comments about The Kingdom. Personlly, I enjoyed the film as a Hollywood action thriller, while disregarding its superficial and confused handling of the subject matter (that I assume to be America's precarious presence in and relations with the Arab nations, in this case, Saudi Arabia).

It's not surprising that this is a Michael Mann production. Mann has given us several pseudo-realistic or pseudo-factual films (e.g., The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, Collateral, Miami Vice). These films have all the semblance of reality; they are not only highly entertaining but also seem convincingly real. In my mind, I have almost no doubt that all drug dealers, professional killers, cops, and Mohican and Huron Indians in real life look exactly as they do in Mann's films; except I know they probably don't (or maybe some of them do).

The Insider probably represents the most factual piece of filmmaking I have seen from Mann. (I haven't had the opportunity to see Ali yet.)

I think what's important is that viewers distinguish between their goals in watching a film: do I want to be entertained? Do I want to be informed and educated? Or do I want a different point of view, one that asks, what if? These goals do not necessarily exclude each other, but it is rare they usually go well together, and you can't score top marks on all counts; something's got to give.

In an ironic and perhaps unintentional way, the film may represent accurately the real sitation: many Americans approach the problem of the middle east in a Hollywood reductionist manner.

FDr said...

Good points, Roy.

Ideally, Americans should study the culture and political background of a country at length before acting on anything in the Middle East, but that would make for a long, dull movie. The Kingdom highlights our ignorance in a way.

I agree with you that The Insider is one of Mann's best films. I'm still astonished that he had anything to do with Hancock.