Bagel Over the White House: The Siege (1998)

Welcome one and all to the third installment of Bagel Over the White House, my ongoing series looking at American political film and how our art can tell us something about where we are as a nation. Last week, we discussed two early Cold War classics and how they dealt with the fear of annihilation, and this week, we’ll be focused on fear of a different, more locally-sourced kind: terrorism.

The Siege is not as directly political as the three films this column has already analyzed, but one of my goals with this project is to demonstrate how politics can sneak its way into a piece of art even without the intent of the author. As I’ve said before, action films in particular are often a good metric for where the country is at precisely because of the ways in which they try to be apolitical; a big-budget action blockbuster doesn’t normally want to spend a lot of time world-building, so it will often rely on existing political attitudes and coding to tell you who’s good and who’s bad and why. While The Siege does take it upon itself to directly comment on some of the realities of the new security state, it also gives away a lot of information about 1998 America which I do not think the filmmakers were necessarily conscious of.

The Siege is an odd film for a number of reasons. The movie itself makes a number of very bizarre choices, so I’m very excited to announce that this is the first truly insane movie I’m covering for this column. But beyond what’s actually contained in the film, The Siege also has a rather strange history. It was not a success at the box office, probably because it sucks, and yet it would enjoy a resurgence of sorts a full three years after its release in the wake of, of all things, 9/11. Its screenwriter claimed it became the most rented movie in America immediately following the attacks for reasons that will probably become clear in a moment. One would hope that our chosen form of collective national therapy would have more than a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I digress.

Notice how none of these pull quotes say “Great for healing mass trauma”

We start with our leads, Denzel Washington and Tony “I Can’t Believe Bruce is Billed Above Me” Shalhoub, rushing to stop an in-progress bus hijacking in New York City. In the first of many confusing decisions the movie will make over its runtime, the “bomb” terrorists have planted on the bus turns out to be a harmless paint bomb they have installed as a warning. Why would terrorists want to alert the FBI to their presence beforehand? What did they hope to accomplish with the ominous phone call to the cops afterwards in which they make no demands? The movie does not seem to know or care. This gives us our first look into the rather outdated view of terrorism The Siege has. These terrorists apparently have a long-term plan with highly specific goals and a lot of moving parts, as opposed to the more random and senseless “attack whenever you can” tactics more common of post-Cold War terrorists.

In the wake of the paint bomb, our leads and some of their coworkers at the FBI are apparently so unthreatened that they feel up to cracking jokes about the prospect of terrorism in New York, another relic of pre-9/11 film. We are also treated to some gut-busting comic relief of Shalhoub… tampering with evidence to enable the FBI to charge a person of interest and hold him in jail. Again, you can’t help but think that maybe this would not be included in a movie that came out after people learned about the Patriot Act and the other moral grey areas included in fighting the War on Terror.

After this, we are introduced to our female lead, played by Annette Bening, and oh boy, are there some issues to discuss here. Over the course of the movie, we will see this character, introduced to us as a no-nonsense, high-ranking CIA agent, be threatened with prison rape, deceive Denzel with her feminine wiles, drunkenly kiss Tony Shalhoub in front of all of their coworkers at a bar, sleep with a person of interest in the case while Denzel and Tony watch and stop just short of making AOOGAH noises, and slap that same POI in the face for deceiving her before Denzel escorts her out for being Too Emotional.  She is problematic, to say the least.

Just because you’re torturing someone in a safehouse basement doesn’t mean you can’t wear that great oversized knit you just bought

Our three leads are quickly called to an extremely similar bus hijacking incident, except this time, there’s a real bomb. Denzel manages to convince the perpetrators to let the kids safely off the bus, but right after agreeing to let the elderly go as well, the terrorists set off the bomb. These are movie terrorists, so they make sure to wait until the old people are in the doorway before exploding them for maximum sadness.  This begins a recurring cycle for the movie which will get old about halfway through its unnecessary two-hour runtime: something in New York blows up, news reports in voiceover tell us what the public reaction was, the three leads track own the responsible parties, Denzel and Annette flirt inappropriately, and then another bomb goes off and we do it all again. All this is broken up by a few truly insane moments, such as the aforementioned bar scene in which Annette and Denzel celebrate a job well done by eye-fucking each other in front of all their colleagues in a scene which would fit perfectly in Mamma Mia if not for the wild tone shift of another bomb going off at the end. Also, they get into a suspect’s apartment by having an undercover agent deliver the pizza he just ordered, except the pizza is actually a bomb, and they immediately kill everyone inside in a hail of gunfire without thinking to question any of these terrorists. Perhaps the security state is just bored with no more Cold War to fight.

Pizza is like a woman: great to slobber all over during a drunken night out, but completely untrustworthy

Ultimately, the failure of the FBI to stop the repeated attacks results in Bruce Willis’s General Devereaux declaring martial law in Brooklyn, the center of the last active terrorist cell. While this massive swing by the screenwriter clearly never came to pass, it does at least try to warn us of the dangers of letting fear decide our policy. Overall, the movie does a much better job predicting how people would react to 9/11 than the specific events of that day themselves. The various news reports tell us that Islamophobic hate crime is on the rise since the attacks began, and much of the Muslim population of Brooklyn is locked up in prison camps during this martial law period of the film. Willis’s character is also criticized by Denzel for the use of torture, even waterboarding specifically, something which would only earn the movie more points as the War on Terror continued.

Unfortunately, for every step it takes towards a salient point on the dangers of letting our fear win out over our morals, The Siege takes a corresponding step towards the same cowardly hatred it warns us against. I’ve already made note of the film’s cartoonish misogyny, but the Islamophobia is much worse. Images of Muslim prayer are consistently scored with threatening music and linked with the acts of horrific violence committed against total innocents over the course of the movie. Nearly every time the leads visit a Muslim-heavy location during their investigation they encounter someone ridiculously well-armed who eventually tries to attack them, including the aforementioned pizza-ordering fiends who were apparently just sitting on their couch holding machine guns and a mechanic who evidently carries a grenade on him at all times during work just in case. Though Shalhoub’s character is presented to us as an example of a “good” Muslim, his tokenism is somewhat undercut when the movie’s other “good” Muslim, a Palestinian refugee and college professor, turn out to be a secret terrorist. This character goes so far as to plan an attack on a mass protest by Brooklyn residents against the Muslim internment camps, painting these human rights activists as naive fools and him as a GI Joe villain.

Bruce forcefully negotiating third billing on the poster even though he’s in this for like 15 minutes

He is, of course, foiled in the end, as are Bruce Willis and his plan to keep his reign of terror over Brooklyn going indefinitely. The white liberal consensus is restored; fascism is defeated except for the parts of it that we like, and the overt racism of internment camps is replaced with the more subtle racism of hinting that every Muslim person is a murderer. The terrorists are all gone, Annette Bening dies as penance for her duplicitous womanhood, and Islamophobia is over forever because we took down Bruce Willis, the only racist guy in America. In ways it almost certainly did not intend, The Siege provides a bizarre and fascinating window into a time which was both twenty and one thousand years ago, a time when terrorism was conducted with real weapons and not commuter jets, when a high-ranking CIA agent could believably make out with every man she meets on the job, when Islamophobia was both completely en vogue and simultaneously recognized as entirely un-American, and when pizza could not be trusted.

The Siege would likely be a forgotten relic if not for the fact that it caught a lucky break by predicting that terrorists would target New York City in the coming years. It’s not a particularly remarkable film in any sense but that, yet this one fact makes it worth watching even two decades later. Its prescience along with the squeaky-clean, terrorism-is-over-for-good-now ending are probably what made it such a popular choice at Blockbuster in the days following 9/11; the movie may have provided a form of catharsis in its own wildly exaggerated way. When something so terrible as the events of that day occurs, our inability to process our grief often leads us to turn to art for help in that process. One of the things that made 9/11 so difficult to process for many people at the time was the seemingly senseless nature of the attacks. There was no reason it had to be the Twin Towers, there was no reason it had to be those couple planes, and there was no reason all of these people had just died. We as humans like to look for patterns and narratives in our lives, but there was no easy narrative to put this attack into. For all of its many flaws, The Siege certainly delivers on the one thing grieving Americans wanted most: a viscerally satisfying ending.