In The Siege, New York City is under attack by Arab terrorists, and everyone responds by getting very, very tense. You can see the tension in the way the characters glower and snipe at one another — barking into their mobile phones, meditating over cryptic faxes, acting as if they’d just been caught in the temple-throbbing vortex of an aspirin commercial. For a while, at least, the movie looks like a thoughtful, exciting thriller. There’s just one catch: The director, Edward Zwick, who made Courage Under Fire, Legends of the Fall, and Glory, knows that he’s grabbed on to a provocative, incendiary subject, but he’s afraid of what’s incendiary about it. He wants to get us all riled up about the evils of terrorism and, at the same time, to get us outraged at our own outrage. It’s no wonder the result caves in on itself. In its grimly competent way, The Siege isn’t a bad movie, but it’s an empty and joyless one — an oxymoronic political-suspense thriller, a piece of guilty demagoguery.

The terrorists, who are operating out of semi-connected ”cells” in Brooklyn, have Armageddon on their minds. For openers, they blow up a bus — a big, shiny municipal bus crammed with passengers, the atrocity neatly timed so that it can play out in front of the local-news helicopters. Having given the city the jitters with this bloody hors d’oeuvre, the terrorists then deliver a main course, detonating a Broadway theater during a show. (It’s my solemn duty to report that the theater is not the one playing Cats.) Tracking both cases is Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington), head of a special FBI task force, who has already sprung into action, rounding up witnesses, ambushing suspects. The trouble is, he and his staff are chasing a shadow militia — a ghost of an enemy. The essence of the onslaught is its unsettling vagueness: the absence of concrete demands, the randomness of the targets, the free-floating anxiety stirred by the notion that apocalypse could happen at any time, on any street corner. Finally, with New York maxed out on fear, the President declares a state of emergency. The Army, operating under the leadership of the stalwart, tight-lipped General Devereaux (Bruce Willis), who claims to be a reluctant enforcer, moves in and puts the city under martial law. The entire borough of Brooklyn is sealed off, and the the local Arab-American residents are arrested and corralled into barbed-wire internment pens.

Ricocheting with comic-book blatancy off the bombings of the World Trade Center, the Oklahoma City federal building, and other incidents, The Siege sounds like something an ideological showbiz fire breather such as John Milius (Red Dawn) might have come up with. The film is vaguely disreputable — at times, it could almost be a guide to new terrorist targets — and yet, Arab-American protests to the contrary, it’s not a racist screed. It’s a cautionary tale about the excesses of jingoist paranoia, and the folly of it all is that the more the film descends into somber liberal chest thumping, the less engrossing it becomes. The scenario The Siege imagines is simply too extreme to be treated with this much self-importance. By the time the tanks rolled over the Brooklyn Bridge, I began to wonder, Gee, when did Pat Buchanan get elected President, anyway?

Perverse as it may sound, Zwick doesn’t get enough nerve-zapping fun out of the hot-button threat of terrorist mayhem. He sets endless scenes inside the FBI headquarters (Late-night coffee jags! Briefings! Fluorescent overkill!), yet he fails to make the city a character — a genuine lost opportunity, considering that New York is currently advertising itself to the world as a safer, theme-park version of its former unruly glory. The film’s emblem of bureaucratic glumness might be the dutiful performance of Denzel Washington, who does everything he can to whip up a sense of urgency yet who, as always, exudes control; he’ll have to let go of that if he ever wants to break into the upper reaches of star magnetism. Willis, robbed of steroid punchlines, looks as starched as his uniform, but Annette Bening at least seems to be trying for something playing a CIA operative who has gotten closer than she should to her chief Arab source. It’s really a thankless role — the double agent as ravaged vamp — but it points the way for Bening as a soulful neurotic siren of the Faye Dunaway school. She belongs in a different movie, one with a glimmer of mystery to it. B-

The Siege
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