Fight for Your Right To Fight: ‘Battle in Seattle’
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
One doesn’t have to agree politically with a movie to appreciate the skill with which it was made or, for that matter, to enjoy it. To combine a bad film, however, with worse politics is to add insult to injury, which brings us to the topic of “Battle in Seattle,” a ham-fisted, sanctimonious blend of leftist agitprop, by-the-numbers melodrama, and excruciating self-righteousness that arrives in theaters Friday. If you are currently taking orders from Rage Against the Machine, Michael Moore, or Naomi Klein, go and see it; for anyone else, this is one “Battle” you’re going to lose.
The movie begins with a brief but remarkably paranoid introductory history sequence, a sort of Protocols of the Elders of GATT, designed to expose the supposedly sinister evolution of the postwar international trade regime. Having set this bleak, menacing, and thoroughly conspiratorial scene, “Battle in Seattle” then gets down to business — or, more accurately, to stopping business. The film is a fictionalized account of the 1999 anti-globalization protests that trashed Seattle, wrecked the World Trade Organization negotiations, and left a legacy that has bedeviled the WTO ever since.
Its writer-director, Stuart Townsend, tells the tale through the stories of a handful of protagonists, primarily some noble protesters. But he reinforces it with a noble Médecins Sans Frontières-type physician (Rade Serbedzija), a noble representative of the Third World (Isaach de Bankolé), an eventually noble TV journalist who comes to see the error of her corporate media ways (Connie Nielsen, a long, long way from “Gladiator”), and a potentially noble, basically good-hearted cop (Woody Harrelson) who, prompted in part by what befalls his wife (the ever-decorative Charlize Theron), finishes the movie at least dimly aware that he is being duped by the Man.
The case for free trade is, of course, never made. The benefits it has brought the developing world don’t rate a mention. All we hear about is exploitation. “Battle in Seattle” is a modern morality play, and like most morality plays, it’s drawn with little nuance and less character development. As Mayor Tobin (presumably a rendering of real-life Seattle mayor Paul Schell), Ray Liotta turns in a cleverly convincing portrait of a soixante-huitard bewildered by a radicalism he once would have understood. But Mr. Liotta’s sensitive, well-judged performance is the exception. His character is a believable, conflicted human being, a refreshing presence in a drama peopled, if that’s the word, by cardboard cutouts.
The protesters at the center of “Battle in Seattle” never emerge from the didactic stereotypes within which they are confined. Beautiful Sam (Jennifer Carpenter) is the sensitive, smart one; Django (OutKast’s Andre Benjamin) is the genial joker, and Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) is fiery, feisty, and, let’s face it, a bit of a pain. Needless to say, they are all passionate, sincere, idealistic, and selfless, none more so than their leader, the charismatic Jay (Martin Henderson), who is determined, inspiring, and replete with tragic backstory and Jesus hair-and-beard. The only surprise is that when he is restored to his people after a time of tribulation, it is not on the third day.
That’s not to say that “Battle in Seattle” doesn’t have its moments: The scenes outside the prison where some protestors have been detained are powerful; with the help of a surging melody, they even stirred my own dark, reactionary soul. What’s more, the film occasionally — very occasionally — has something useful to say. The two acts of brutality that come to define Mr. Townsend’s portrayal of the police response to the protests may dissolve into a bloody sludge of karma and caricature, but the director’s depiction of a police department unprepared for what hits the city rings true. So does the obvious implication that the resulting confusion inflamed a situation that may not (as is sometimes claimed) have been a “police riot,” but was certainly chaotic and, at times, all too heavy-handed.
To be fair, Mr. Townsend doesn’t dodge the fact that the protesters were themselves responsible for much of the violence that marked the Seattle protests, although he is careful to pin the blame on an anarchist minority. There’s some truth to that latter claim, but only some, and it sidesteps the awkward question of whether large crowds swarming downtown Seattle with the intention of stopping people from going to a conference they wish to attend can, in any meaningful sense, be considered “nonviolent.” At the very least, such “direct action” (to use the usual euphemism) is intimidation, if not mob rule — something that Mr. Townsend veers dangerously close to endorsing in a closing sequence that seems to celebrate the trouble that has surrounded subsequent WTO gatherings.
Judging by his movie’s script, Mr. Townsend’s justification for this appears to be that the WTO lacks democratic legitimacy, an argument with emotional, if not always logical, appeal in an era when globalization has left many feeling as though they’ve lost control of their economic destiny. It might have more force, however, if moviegoers could believe that Sam, Lou, Django, Jay, and their ilk would have protested just as vigorously against, say, the no less undemocratic Kyoto treaty. Fat chance. Their real beef, of course, is with nasty old capitalism (the ugliest expletive throughout “Battle in Seattle” is “corporate”), a dreary, shop-soiled grudge to which this film adds little beyond a city’s smashed shop windows.