Like a tree loses its leaves, 'The Siege' lost my attention

November 12, 1998

Early autumn in New England was like nothing I had experienced before. The sky opens up, filling itself with air, cool but not alarming.

The trees explode from the mountains with so much energy, color - so much life. No wonder tourists converge upon the northeastern United States like vultures preying upon a carcass - only this death, the death of deciduous trees, is beautiful and temporary. Still, now when I drive, much more quickly without the slow-moving and stopped cars crammed with gawking foliage fiends, I cannot help but find the trees not only ugly, but useless. They tarnish the landscape with their bland browns.

"The Siege" is rather like a deciduous tree. You'll have to forgive my analogy, but I am taking several writing courses, and the nature metaphor has seized my synapses and will not let them go. It has its season to flourish, in which it is more engrossing than any action movie from this past summer. Eventually, however, things begin to fall away - plausibility, dramatic interest, my attention.


In its first half hour, "The Siege" works so concisely and so correctly that I was willing to look over its broad strokes. After a somewhat tedious preface, in which an Arab terrorist is taken hostage by U.S. forces, the viewer is thrown into F.B.I. offices in New York where the agents specialize in preventing terrorist attacks. Who could be a more compelling opponent of terrorism than Denzel Washington? As Anthony Hubbard, Washington makes you forget the initials I.C.B.M. He leads a motley crew of wiseacres and hardnoses who basically are just variations on the stock characters we encountered in "Saving Private Ryan." Still, their banter is smartly scripted.

Screenwriters Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyers and Edward Zwick (also the director) develop a style of conversation that is casual but close and hints at the proper amount of government-agency jargon. When the team responds to a hostage situation on a New York city bus, I felt like I was an assisting agent. The bus explodes - with blue paint. It is just a warning, but enough of one to draw the attention of I.N.S. agent Elise Kraft (Annette Bening).

She and Hubbard - or, Hub, as she comes to call him - clash over such silly things as jurisdiction and the Constitution. Bening plays her part masterfully - with the kind of distaff, amiable snarl that Rosalind Russell possessed and Meg Ryan wishes she could attain. A natural chemistry develops.

"The Siege" is too serious a film, however; or at least it thinks it is. Soon after the blue-paint bombing, there is a genuine bus explosion. This scene is handled so delicately, and with such ingenious distraction (when you expect the bus to blow, it doesn't; when you don't, it does) that you forget you are watching a manufactured display of pyrotechnics. It feels organic, natural.

Some credit goes to Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, whose diffused lighting makes you feel like you are watching a documentary. One of the reasons I generally despise action films is because the lighting is of such bright, glossy definition that it is neither stylish, nor realistic.

Another reason, however, is helicopters. I do not think Dave Barry is our wisest cultural arbiter, but I have to agree with his idea that the poor quality of a movie is directly proportionate to how many helicopters are in it. There are a multitude in "The Siege." They swarm about the screen to remind you just how unlikely - how unnatural - a movie can be. I was convinced by the first few bombings in the movie. But when the Army Takes Manhattan, it would be polite to say I lost interest.

Bruce Willis can take most of the blame - though Zwick deserves a fair share as well. Willis plays General William Deveraux, a character so subtly drawn that he spouts lines like "they're now dealing with the most powerful force in the history of mankind." The actor's portrayal does not help matters - he is smug and self-absorbed, and so proud of himself for assuming a supporting role. Willis needs to shave his head and act in another $5 million dollar movie to retrain, restrain, his arrogance.

Zwick allows his movie to digress from a taut examination of terror to a bombastic exultation of patriotism and political correctness. The film is so ridiculously conservative in ideology that it hardly deserves the attacks it is getting from Arab Anti-Defamation League. As tanks roll down Madison Avenue and buildings blow up with abandon, "The Siege" begins to feel less like a movie than a skit for which someone forgot to write the jokes. At this point, "The Siege" is no longer just a tree that has lost its leaves; it's lost its bark.

Hagerstown resident Jason Myers is a freshman at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.

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