Battle in Seattle

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Battle in Seattle

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.

Then 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 workings themselves.

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 wheels.

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.

Given 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 bastards.

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