Tuesday, October 9, 2007

'The Kingdom' Of American Wish Fulfillment

Movies have long been the place where audiences see their dreams realized. People fall in love, win fortunes, find the perfect job and otherwise triumph over adversity. We know it's not always like that in the real world. But every once in a while, a movie comes along with a fantasy that just isn't healthy, and director Peter Berg's The Kingdom is such a film.

In The Kingdom, a terrorist attack occurs in Saudi Arabia, in a compound where the families of American employees of multi-national corporations live. U.S. intelligence agents make demands, twist arms and otherwise coerce their way into getting permission to enter Saudi Arabia - the kingdom of the film's title - so that they can investigate the crime that took the lives of their friends who were present at the time, despite the very clear instructions from the U.S. attorney general that they stay out of it. Apparently, the rule of law means little to Americans when revenge is at hand.

Once in Saudi Arabia, the agents are flustered and aggravated at having to comply with the rules and the customs of the Saudis. Jennifer Garner's character shows a combination of ignorance and disrespect when she meets a Saudi prince in a revealing tank top. The message to the audience is: These aren't messengers of diplomacy; to hell with Saudi customs, they have a job to do! Jamie Foxx's character is the leader and he is constantly playing the smart cop in another jurisdiction routine: "Just let me do my job because I know better than you! And I can solve this if you stop tying my hands!"

Just as Rambo once re-fought and won the Vietnam War, the Americans in The Kingdom are there to kick some terrorist ass and reassure American audiences that we could win the war on terror if only other countries' rules and laws weren't tying the hands of American tough guys (and gals).

A harrowing (and effectively suspenseful) climax has Jason Bateman's character kidnapped by terrorists, who bind and gag him, and set his execution up to be filmed, just as other torturous, real-life films of beheadings have made their way out of similar conflicts. Here is the film's inherent dishonesty: Just as the character is to be beheaded, the American agents burst into the room, killing all the terrorists and saving their friend. Using a situation that is beyond comprehension, the film suggests that American muscle can triumph over that which no one has yet been able to stop.

Early in the film, when word comes that one of their friends has been killed in the attack, Garner's character weeps. Foxx's character whispers to her, and she stops, but we aren't told until the very end what he said to her: "We're going to kill them all." That's the same sentiment that a dying terrorist leader whispers to his granddaughter near the film's end. You might think that the movie is showing how both sides are ignorant and that would be true, had we not just spent two hours seeing these U.S. agents who want to "kill them all" glorified as action heroes and problem solvers.

Newspaper ads for the film use a quote that proclaims it "the best movie of the year so far by far," according to a Fox News critic. Not surprising that the right-wing channel that has done it's best to legitimize American action in the Middle East and support a war that was a bad idea before it started would further encourage the public to see something positive in a movie that presents Americans only as do-gooders who are frustrated and hamstrung by other cultures. The movie is considered offensive enough that it has been banned in Bahrain and Kuwait, according to Daily Variety.

Anytime a movie presents itself as being topical, it owes a responsibility to the audience to present situations that bear some relation to reality. This film doesn't. Many Saudis - not just fundamentalists - resent the American presence in their country, and while the people that are victims of the attacks in the movie certainly don't deserve what happens to them, the real situation is more complex. American companies have been exploiting Saudi resources for decades, and an understanding of this would have provided a more complete picture for the film. Instead, it presents a simplistic portrait of a conflict that most audiences don't understand (especially since their ignorance is encouraged by the right-wing media), with characters descended from Rambo and other neanderthal tough guys.

The Kingdom is the most irresponsible movie in many years.