Battle in Seattle
written and directed by Stuart Townsend
starring Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Carpenter, Andre Benjamin, Ray Liotta, Rade Serbedzija
This telling of the momentous 1999 Seattle clash between the monolithic World Trade Organization and a massive contingent of their detractors manages to steer away from demonizing the police although it certainly shows some of them in less than flattering light.
The WTO is an international organization that has become a thorn in the side of a baffling array of folks who view it as immoral and deliberately entrenched in a philosophy that views products and commerce more important than the lives of the poor who these individuals conclude have suffered directly due to the WTO’s policies. Nearly a decade ago they came to Seattle to hold a conference and thousands of protesters were ready waiting for them.
This is a film that clearly expresses the legitimacy of civil disobedience and the art of staging a large scale protest involving everyone from environmentalists, labor, human rights advocates and countless others. The scope of the protest is impressive for a variety of reasons. It involves a networking of determined individuals who literally put their lives on the line to force a dialog. The film captures the hungry mood and the pent up aggression that spills out specifically when the embattled police are forced to employ chemical deterrents and other grisly tools in a vain effort to control the clouds. There are really two factions of protesters operating in this film. There are those whose protest is indeed civil and entirely within the confines of legality. There are also those who insist on making a loud raucous display of their frustration by vandalizing shop buildings and otherwise heightening the tensions that lead to the police actions, a state of emergency and ultimately a curfew in downtown Seattle.
Jay (Henderson) is the leader of a group of individuals who simply want to demonstrate their ill will toward the WTO and their modus operandi is to do so non-violently. They are there with the others to put a face on a mounting distrust toward everything the WTO stands for. They are sickened and concerned and perfectly willing to go to jail should it come to that. Naturally everyone involved is participating for a variety of private reasons that culminate in what turns out to be one of the largest public outcries of recent memory. The protests were not limited to Seattle as at least thirty different cities saw their streets teeming with angry, frustrated mobs who also saw the WTO as reprehensible and beneath their contempt.
The film shows the strain that the police are under and allows a few portraits of individual officers who are beset with their own frustrations and the growing tension and pressures from every link in the chain of command leading up to the President. Lou (Harrelson) is a complex cop whose wife Ella (Theron) suffers a miscarriage after being assaulted by an anonymous police offers as she’s leaning against a building after being caught in the fray. He tries to get out of front line duty but is told he has no choice but to put on his riot gear and report for duty. Unfortunately his claims of not being right in the head prove to be accurate as he loses control during a pivotal scene. Mayor Jim Tobin (Liotta) is as tortured as anyone by what has befallen his city. He is both attempting to appease the WTO and present them with a warm reception but he also has to deal with reestablishing order and maintaining a face for the media and an international audience. It’s a daunting task and one that becomes more remote as the film progresses. There is no cheer on the side of the authorities as they attempt to maintain their cool and avoid allowing their pent up emotions to replace the necessity of the service they are bound to provide the community.
The film manages to show this tension and overall the police do not fair too poorly in the way they are depicted. They are presented as mere human beings who are allotted a mammoth task that requires patience and fortitude which are virtues that often fall by the wayside in the heat of battle. In this case there are a few cops who, like Lou, fail to uphold their sacred duty and become violent with individuals who are simply congregating albeit refusing to move despite the curfew which has been set up to sweep the streets of debris. They are presented as anomalies who besmirch the otherwise pristine image of the individual cops that the film presents. Indeed, the film criticizes the institutional pressures that are necessitated when such heated animosities spill out into public life. There is hatred here and anger toward something that is viewed as unjust. There is also hundreds of thousands of people who remain outside the conflict and simply want to return to their daily grind in peace. They care nothing for the conference or if they do they don’t share in the sentiments that lead so many to vocalize their own distress in a primitive wail that necessarily leads to violence.
There is something of the martyr to many of the individuals who routinely put themselves in harms way simply to make a point. They disregard their own personal safety and well being because they want to show whomever is watching just how riled up they are about whatever happens to be their pet cause at the moment. Jay has been arrested twice before and can hardly afford another one. Still, he knows with every movement that the more pronounced his protest the more likely he will be arrested and sent away for a very long time. It’s a risk he’s willing to take and there are very few people in the film who can relate to his level of dedication. Also, one can argue that those who throw themselves at the front of the line where they are most likely to come in direct contact with randomly swung batons are masochists who seek out such confrontations because of the real possibility they will suffer acute bodily harm. The whole mess plays out like some barbarous ballet where the players taunt each other in a desperate urge to make something happen. This film showcases how both the protests and the aftermath are consumed with passion and a legitimate zest for life.
Django (Benjamin) is the easiest going kid on the block. He takes everything in stride and is a genuine inspiration to those around him. He is a strong, vital presence who raises morale by singing Bobby McFerrin’s small classic, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” after a particularly rough patch. It’s a delightful moment because it comes straight from Django’s heart and he clearly means every word of it. He’s the smiling, merry face of the operation and reminds the viewer of the joy that is inherent in such endeavors. There is a bit of the thrill of it all in these acts on both sides as the experiences gained are relatively scarce and filled with the prospect of grave and irrevocable danger.
The performances in this film all serve the material. Both Woody Harrelson and Charlize Theron convey the hopes and fears of any couple expecting their first child. They prove to be fully believable in their roles and their characterizations ring true throughout. Martin Henderson conveys his character’s driving passion to draw attention to injustice wherever he finds it. Henderson gives Jay a necessary bit of unease as events begin to unfold around him. Ray Liotta is solid as the mayor stuck with the unfortunate task of attempting to sort out the mess created by the conflict. He expresses just the proper amount of distress throughout and the war being forged is displayed clearly on his face.
Overall this is a powerful, relatively even handed film that expresses a quiet outrage over the machinery that led to such a monumental standoff. Neither the police or the protesters are particularly grilled although the film doesn’t hesitate to show how some individuals on each side, who remain anonymous, take out their aggressions and fears in violent actions against either property or other people. This is a film about the belief that direct steps can be taken to change the present environment and that motivation and certitude projected in a specific manner can draw the attention of the world to your cause. In this case, the cause is simply forcing the WTO to abandon ship and take their concerns as far away as possible. It is a modest aim but this film demonstrates how an aggressive plan properly executed can lead to great, substantive alteration of the landscape.