War Is (Kind of) Hell
The Kingdom / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | September 30, 2007 | Comments ()
The Kingdom begins with a rapid-fire timeline that covers the official formation of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 to today, stopping along the way to highlight the discovery of oil in the 1930s, the nation’s rise to global power in the decades following, and eventually how Osama bin Laden — born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — would come to denounce the Saudi monarchy for turning to the U.S. for support instead of bin Laden’s forces when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The (very) brief tutorial is as much for the benefit of the viewer as it is director Peter Berg’s attempt to provide a historical context for the film, because in setting a film about a terrorist attack in modern-day Saudi Arabia, Berg automatically taps into both the American willingness to fight a foreign enemy and society’s general ignorance about the politics, religion, and history of the region. The reason World War II has become such a dependable backdrop for a war film is that we as a culture have been steeped in the mythos of the greatest generation and its conflict, and because that war provided Americans with an easily identifiable list of enemies: Germany. Japan. Italy. But the chaos of the Middle East makes for a much messier, complex battle, and one that’s that much harder to attempt to translate to film. Berg’s rushed civics lesson is his way of trying to set the larger scene, to illustrate the changes in Saudi Arabia over the past 75 years. It’s a noble goal, and he succeeds. The problem is that the film itself often eschews that wide-angle view of history for a narrower, if still compelling, kind of war-based morality tale. Berg’s film, from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, is a mix of action, suspense, and mildly provocative politics, as if somebody made a really solid “Law & Order” episode and set it in the Middle East. The Kingdom makes occasional nods in the direction of balance, or fairness, or even just asking a good question or two, but those moments are shouted down by the fiercer warriors in Berg’s army: explosions, car chases, and a sense of American might at the expense of our own humanity.
The film opens with a softball game at an American compound in Riyadh, complete with burgers sizzling on the grill and the strains of Dave Matthews Band’s “Stay” drifting over the field in the summer air. Everything seems as peaceful as it can be for Saudi Arabia, but soon enough, two militants in stolen police uniforms infiltrate the camp and begin to slaughter the civilians, mowing down families with sub-machine guns in the first of the film’s queasily realistic scenes of graphic violence. Amid the screaming crowd, one of the attackers raises his arms, whispers that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet, then blows himself apart, taking most of the crowd with him. But this is just the first attack: Once emergency responders arrive at the scene that night, including FBI representatives in the region, a much larger blast goes off at the scene, taking out most of the block and sending the body count soaring. Berg uses cinematographer Mauro Fiore to capture all this action with the shaky handheld aesthetic Berg’s been growing fonder of since Friday Night Lights, as if he wants the viewer not just to feel as if they are actually present and witnessing the action in person, but also rocking back and forth while doing so, and possibly punching themselves in the head to further muddle comprehension. Handheld cameras communicate an emotional urgency and lend the story a kind of freedom, transforming potential energy into kinetic, but Berg overdoes it and simply winds up with what often feels like something shot as if he were actually taking enemy fire while filming.
The pair of attacks falls under the purview of FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his team of forensic and intelligence experts, including Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman). After going a few rounds with the FBI director and pulling a few strings, Fleury secures access for himself and his crew to Saudi Arabia for five days to investigate the bomb site and attempt to catch the perpetrators. The introduction of the deadline — the team has just a few short days to work before being removed from the country — is a smart move from Carnahan that would have allowed for several more layers of tension: Will the team find the killer in time? Will they make it out in five days? What if they can’t make it out after the deadline? Unfortunately, Carnahan seemingly abandons that plot point; it’s never mentioned again after the FBI team lands in Saudi Arabia, which is indicative of the film’s larger problem, namely, that it winds up being as chaotic as the region it’s supposedly trying to understand.
Once Fleury’s team arrives, the film turns into a low-level procedural as they take apart the evidence and try to discover the killer. There are a few instances of culture clash, like the fact that Adam’s expletive-laden humor doesn’t sit well with his Saudi hosts, but for the most part, Berg passes up the opportunity for introspection in favor of a straightforward police story. Instead of deriving momentum from character depth or interaction, the script pigeonholes the FBI agents into roles seemingly carved out specifically for the actors in question: Fleury is arrogant, quick-witted, and willing to bully his way to his goal; Sykes is Southern, stubborn, and hard-working; Janet is strong, brave, and emotional; and Adam is sarcastic, wry, and likable. These stereotypes worked for other war movies, they might as well work for Berg. Only Bateman brings a spark of life to his scenes, adding levity and a level of humanity missing from the rest of the cold, calculating script.
Berg wants to make a political thriller, a smart action movie, and he almost gets there. But the series of escalating action sequences, including the climactic car chase through Riyadh that culminates in a street shootout, has a desensitizing effect, especially set to the heavy score from Danny Elfman. Berg doesn’t just show the bombers planning their attacks, but works the film into a righteous furor at the enemy, unleashing in the final battle a pent-up anger hinted at with the images of Sept. 11 in the opening credits. This gets even weirder when it buts up against the performance of Ashraf Barhoum as Col. Faris Al Ghazi, who acts as Fleury’s military liaison. A montage of the Saudi soldiers’ home lives about halfway through the film is apparently meant to humanize them, but’s unnerving to think of human beings as needing to be humanized. Of course Al Ghazi has a family and cares about them; that makes him a good man, but not an extraordinary one. There’s a pervasive sense of division throughout the film, and for every genuine moment between two characters, there’s one that reinforces old stereotypes (Muslims are twitchy, Americans kick ass, etc.). War is a nasty, brutish thing that breaks men’s hearts and souls, but Berg only seems to acknowledge that out of necessity, not belief. The Kingdom is meant to end on a note of ambiguity that warns of the self-defeating dangers of warfare and cautions that violence begets violence. And maybe Berg believes that, which is a good thing. But he sure doesn’t sell it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.