An action flick with a brain angers Islamic groups despite its best efforts

By Degen Pener
November 13, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
Movie DetailsAbout The Siege
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Other than strapping dynamite to your chest, the closest thing to a suicide mission in Hollywood is spending nearly $70 million on a film that could offend a vocal segment of the moviegoing public. If that’s true, director Edward Zwick has a nuclear arsenal hanging off his belt. As his new movie, The Siege, opens nationwide, he’s risking the wrath not only of Muslims and Jews but of movie critics and action fans.

Months before it was released, The Siege — a look at how the U.S. government would respond to Arab terrorist attacks on New York — angered Arab-American and Islamic antidefamation groups. ”Insidious, dangerous, and incendiary” is how the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has described it. Annette Bening, who plays a hardened CIA operative with a soft spot for the Palestinian cause, says, ”At one point we were afraid we were going to be alienating the Jewish population. These issues are so volatile that if you say anything, you can be accused by one group or another of being wrongheaded.”

In fact, ”wrongheaded” handily sums up some critics’ opinions. The Siege is a risky hybrid of two types of usually mutually exclusive genres — a serious-minded political film about constitutional rights and a blow-’em-up thriller. As even Zwick admits, the film — despite the star power of Denzel Washington as an FBI agent and Bruce Willis as a U.S. Army general — isn’t an easy sell. ”A friend of mine calls it ‘a counterintuitive action movie,”’ he says. Now, there’s a line Fox wouldn’t dare splash across a poster.

Nevertheless, the studio is heavily wooing male moviegoers. TV ads play up the bombings as hardcore action, while giving maximum exposure to Willis and Washington. ”You don’t want to just hit people on the head having debates,” contends Washington. ”You do have to entertain.” (Meanwhile, Bening — whose role is much larger than Willis’ — is consigned to the background in the promos.)

But if Zwick is nervous about his film’s reception, he’s not letting on. The director was partly inspired to make The Siege by political thrillers, like Costa-Gavras’ Z, from the ’60s and ’70s. Asked whether his movie seems like a bit of an anomaly today, Zwick responds with a sheepish laugh. ”I guess” is the best he can do.

Certainly Zwick had the opportunity to make a more conventional action movie. Four years ago, producer Lynda Obst optioned a series of New York Times articles about a female CIA agent. She hired The New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright to come up with a screenplay. The only problem, recalls Wright: ”There was no story.” But, inspired by articles about 1993’s World Trade Center bombing, Wright fashioned a plot in which the FBI and the CIA struggle for control prior to an impending nuclear attack on New York. ”The script talked about tracking down a weapon of mass destruction bound to blow up the U.N.,” says Zwick. In the hands of another director, the screenplay could have ended up as just another addition to the Arabs-or-Muslims-as-bad-guys genre, which includes such films as True Lies and Executive Decision. ”We’re the new bad breed,” says Tony Shalhoub (Big Night), who plays a Lebanese-American FBI agent in The Siege.

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