Final jeopardy

The Siege sends for the Bill of Rights and skips out on the check

We know in our hearts that it's not right, but The Siege sets up a scenario in which it begins to make sense. Then along comes the last third of the movie to refute such logic. Unfortunately, the refutation is not nearly as well executed as the setup. It requires us to accept that, yes, left to his own devices Hubbard will ultimately stop the terrorists. (Sure, but what if he couldn't?) And we also have to believe that the formerly cautious Devereaux will be unnecessarily wanton and clumsy and eventually--in accordance with constitutional duty--will refuse to respond to the proper challenge to his authority. (What if he were behaving more judiciously?)

In either of those cases, neither of which seems impossible, we would be left believing that martial law isn't all that unreasonable. That Zwick stacks his deck so lopsidedly is the movie's greatest failing. It's up to Washington to convince us that the film has made its point: His delivery of Hubbard's big climactic speech is so compelling, we find ourselves buying the message, even though it's not adequately supported by what already has taken place. (It's also amusing and frankly unbelievable that FBI agents are portrayed as such squeaky-clean defenders of our constitutional rights.)

Long before its release, the film drew loud protests from the Arab-American community, and though The Siege's political heart is in the right place, it isn't always as sensitive as it could be. Still, compared with Hollywood's usual treatment of Arabs--exemplified by movies such as True Lies and Into the Night--The Siege comes off downright progressive. The most controversial scene, in which the head terrorist engages in Islamic purification rituals before going off on his final insane mission, seems at best gratuitous. And a counterbalancing scene of Hubbard attending a religious ceremony with his partner's family is awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative, marking it almost surely as an afterthought to placate criticism.

Whatever its failings, The Siege is a more earnest attempt at using the thriller format to convey patriotic ideals than we're accustomed to seeing from Hollywood. Too bad its arguments aren't more convincing.

The Siege.
Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Lawrence Wright, Menno Meyjes, and Edward Zwick. Starring Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Bruce Willis, and Tony Shalhoub. Opens Friday.

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