Release Date: Sept. 19
Director/Writer: Stuart Townsend
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
Starring: Michelle Rodriguez, Woody Harrelson, Martin Henderson, Charlize Theron?
Studio/Run Time: Redwood Palms, 100 mins.
Flimsy examination of a famous protest
A film that recreates the volatile environment of the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle might not seem to have much in common with the melodramatic disaster movies of the 1970s, but boiled down to its minerals, Battle in Seattle feels a lot more like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) than a thorough examination of the moment.
Written and directed by Stuart Townsend, the film opens with a
two-minute history of the WTO, beginning in 1947 and zipping up to
1999, leaving the impression that the organization oversees every
financial transaction on earth—hence the need for opposition.
the film shifts into the fictionalized personalities involved in the
chess game played on Seattle’s grid in ’99: the noble protesters, the
armored riot squads, the violent renegades in the midst of both. The
mayor, the reporters, the delegates, the innocent bystanders, they
visit the doctor, they shop, because it’s a day like any other—until
the earthquake or hijacking or riot turns the city on its head.
With United 93
(2006), Paul Greengrass proved that the maligned disaster formula can
actually be harnessed for good. With a pile of research and a dose of
speculation, he traced the minutes leading up to the 9/11 terrorist
attacks and fleshed out a rarely told part of the story. Likewise,
former journalist David Simon detailed the complex inner workings of a
Baltimore drug operation in his fictional HBO series The Wire,
paying particular attention to the operation’s interaction with police
departments and newspaper offices, both of which have complex inner
Greengrass and Simon drew clear schematics
of these systems through the pointillism of individuals, and they were
as careful with the personal details as the big picture, which lent
credibility to the entire enterprise. We could see not only who did
what, but why, and we could see how those cogs ended up turning the
In the same way, Townsend pulls a few of the Seattle
pieces together. He shows how protesters can connect their arms to
create a barricade, how someone hanging a banner from a crane is
susceptible to “turtling,” and how police who are instructed not to use
gas use gas anyway. And he has given cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who
also shot United 93) enough freedom and direction to photograph
rowdy crowds and smoky alleys as if he were capturing real events. It’s
all staged, but Ackroyd and his crew give the impression that they’ve
been dropped into actual chaos, like Haskell Wexler shooting Medium Cool.
Townsend also maintains a degree of empathy for characters he likely
disagrees with, especially a cop played by Woody Harrelson.
the sophisticated photoplay developing in the streets and the sincere
effort to create nuance, it’s disappointing to see the film turn simple
at its midpoint.
Throughout Battle in Seattle, Townsend
relies heavily on snippets of dialogue that tell us how to process what
we’re seeing. Televisions and radios explain what’s wrong in the world
while hotheaded cops bark, “I need more tear gas, I don’t care what
they say downtown!” Rather than receding into the texture of the
street, these little firecrackers of exposition eventually leave a
ringing in the ears just when the film is trying to rattle the walls
with rhetorical explosions. Each little pop reminds me of the ship
captain played by Leslie Nielsen in The Poseidon Adventure. He
looks at the man about to capsize his ship and says in a tight
close-up, “You irresponsible bastard.” Nielson acted in serious movies
back then, but his acting style in Poseidon was identical to the one he used in Airplane! a few years later, and the dialogue of Battle in Seattle
is similarly flexible. In a slightly different context, it could
function as a parody, and when Townsend’s flimsy fiction rises to the
foreground in the last half, it pushes aside the more interesting
mechanics of the street.
“They still don’t know what [the WTO]
is, but at least they know it’s bad,” says one of the protesters from
his detention cell, counting his blessings and bucking up a depressed
colleague. Unfortunately, the same could be said today, after almost a
decade of reflection. In the end, the heroes emerge into the sunlight
like the survivors of the Poseidon disaster, but here, it’s not quite
clear what turned things upside down, except for a few irresponsible