The most striking thing about this film is just how prescient it turned out to be. Released in 1998, it features Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attacks on New York, a public stricken with fear and anger lashing out at anyone vaguely Arab-looking, politicans looking for a quick solution to please their angry constituents, a military willing (and eager) to round up suspects in the streets and to torture prisoners. The war is fought on American soil (Brooklyn is placed under martial law, and occupied by the army), but the themes of the war against terror that followed the September 11th attacks are all present and accounted for. It would be impossible for a Hollywood studio to make this picture in 2005, because it would be considered far too aggressive a condemnation of the US government’s behaviour since 2001.
(An independent production company, however, might not make the colossal mistake of casting Bruce Willis in the role of the Army general in charge of the occupation. In the face of meaty performances from Denzel Washington and Annette Bening, he stands out as wooden and lifeless. If there was ever a role written for the late, great J.T. Walsh, this is it.)
Seeing this film in the middle of 2005, it is easy to dismiss the ending as unrealistically happy. It’s as if someone had filmed a reconstruction of a particularly gruesome car crash, and let everyone walk away with only minor injuries, when in real life no-one got out alive. But to do so would be unfair. In 1998, The Siege set out to be an action thriller, with some strongly cautionary messages about the importance of the American values of justice and liberty, especially in times of crisis. For expressing the wish that those values can win through in the end, it should be applauded, not berated.
If only the real world were more like the movies.