THE WORLD IS WATCHING
The first film to be considered after all that Batman goodness seems a rather appropriate one for a couple of reasons. On the back of The Dark Knight’s telling of one man’s attempts to sink society into a chaotic frenzy, today’s film takes the docu-drama approach to a real-life event when that almost actually happened. It’s also particularly timely because there are, at the time of writing, numerous protests and demonstrations going on across the US under the banner of Occupy Wall Street, which relied very heavily on the Internet as a means of organisation. For actor Stuart Townsend’s first (and so far only) crack at writing and directing, he chose to look at one of the most famous and incendiary topics that occurred in the final year of last millennium. Taking its title from one of the media labels attached to the event, this is Battle in Seattle.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is a body that is under near constant protest and objection by a significant portion of society. At the 1999 WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle, thousands of activists arrive to protest on a number of issues and causes. However, riots and chaos eventually consume the city as demonstrators try to stop the WTO meetings. The events are told from numerous perspectives, such as protestors, the media, the police force, the government and the WTO delegates.
If I’m honest, I had no idea about what happened in Seattle until I watched this film. For all of it being one of the most significant events in recent US history, important for several reasons, one of which was forcing the mainstream media to engage with the concept of the Anti-Globalisation Movement, which had been largely ignored by most outlets until 1999, I honestly can’t remember a single instance of hearing about it at the time. I didn’t have much interest in global events then, and still don’t to some degree. Besides, there were other things that I did hear about which got my attention much more: the shootings at Columbine, which shook a lot of people up for a long time; the beginning of the impeachment process against President Clinton; Scotland opened its first Parliament in 300 years; there was war in Kosovo; worldwide preparations for the Millennium were underway; and, who could forget, Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released upon the world. When you think about it, there was a hell of a lot that happened in 1999.
Given the circumstances, can I really be blamed for letting that one thing in Seattle slip by?… I think the answer to that is yes. At least, that’s probably what most people who were involved would say, and I’d have to agree a little bit. The Clinton impeachment was a joke; the Millennium plans were stupid; I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body, so couldn’t care less about the Parliament; and, well, fuck The Phantom Menace. The only other things of great concern (at least from the list I’ve made) were Columbine and Kosovo, which, without meaning to detract in any way from the gravity or tragedy of those events, happened months before Seattle. And considering the global implications of what was being discussed and demonstrated against at the WTO conference and the subsequent riots, it probably would have been prudent to cast the occasional glance towards it every now and then.
One person that was certainly paying attention at the time was Stuart Townsend, the Irish actor known best for appearing in high-profile flops and never quite getting the break needed to become really big. He’s certainly not untalented, as he’s shown in past smaller ventures like Shooting Fish and Resurrection Man, but it’s never quite swung far enough to get him as known as he maybe should be. As it is, he turned his hand to writing and directing a relatively low-budget feature that took a multi-stranded view of the events that occurred over those few days around the end of November in 1999. The film took in the perspectives of the protestors and demonstrators, the police, the mayor, and some of the delegates and speakers in attendance at the conference. To fill the various roles within the film, Townsend assembled a damn impressive cast: André Benjamin, Jennifer Carpenter, Woody Harrelson, Martin Henderson, Joshua Jackson, Ray Liotta, Tzi Ma, Ivana Milicevic, Connie Nielsen, Michelle Rodriguez, Rade Serbedzija, Channing Tatum, Charlize Theron… sweet Jesus, that’s a lot of talent in there, especially in a film with a budget of less than $10 million.
Now, when taking on a film like Battle in Seattle, it’s difficult to try and identify just what it is you want to do with it. It’s a very emotive subject, with plenty of ammunition for addressing real world concerns, and it damn sure has some fine talent to be utilised in discussing those issues, but it’s also a minefield of potential problems. If Townsend were to follow just one group, it offers the chance of deeper involvement with those characters and motives, but can end up feeling uneven, lopsided, unfair in the portrayal of everyone else. As it is, he’s gone for the other approach, taking in all sides, which can make for a more balanced account of events, but can also hinder the depth of exploration of these characters, particularly in a film that’s only 90 minutes long. There are also the political aspirations of the film. Films like these need to be able to provide some sort of insight into the cause being observed, either good or bad. Be too forceful and you’ll just end up alienating people; whereas being half-assed about it will just seem like a waste of time, effort and potential. Then there’s the simple level of filmmaking and drama. No matter what your intentions with the final product, if it fails as a film, with poor characters and lacking in drama, it will generally be dismissed or ignored, making it all for nought. For his first time as the primary creative force behind a film, Stuart Townsend has picked himself a tough one.
Now, the temptation for some would be to look at one and ignore the other. It’s either to be taken as a political text where its existence as a film isn’t really a concern; or it’s a filmed drama to be considered, with the political worries left to others to take from it what they will. Doing only one of these would be to look at only half of the film, which I’m sure Townsend et al would be rather annoyed with. So, I’ll take a swing at both.
First, the filmic aspects. With so many characters being looked at over the course of Battle in Seattle, there is the feeling of being mildly short-changed on some level, which comes simply from being spread too thin. Arcs are there to some degree, but feel squashed down, underdeveloped, or just unnecessary. It’s largely left to the skill of the actors involved to flesh out whatever they get. For example, Martin Henderson’s Jay (who does have an interesting backstory) and Michelle Rodriguez’s Lou (who seems built mainly on platitude) seem to have some sort of romantic thing going, but it’s never entirely convincing because it never goes anywhere and just distracts from what’s going on. Removing this subplot, or the character of Lou altogether, would have freed things up a bit. The relationship between Jay and Sam, played by Jennifer Carpenter, feels more substantial, but is left relatively untouched, which greatly detracts from Sam’s overall impact in the film.
On the other side of things, there’s Ella and Dale (Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson), a couple in the fifth month of pregnancy. She works in an upscale clothing store downtown, and he’s a cop set for crowd control/riot duty for the demonstration. We get a bit more time with these two, and their relationship is much better drawn, and anchored by two of the best performances in the film. As things start to go south and all hell breaks loose, we get a much better sense of these characters, both individually and together, the pain and love between them. We get much more from these two than people who are more directly in the fray.
Other characters are a bit lacking, though are handled very well. Mayor Jim Tobin, played by Ray Liotta, spends most of his time just looking very worried and trying to find solutions to the escalating problems, but Liotta shows the strain in the man nicely, his voice audibly cracking when he is forced to declare a state of emergency in the city. Rade Serbedzija also does some great understated work as Dr. Maric, who is set to deliver a presentation to the conference about making medicine more available to Third World countries, but is largely denied his chance because demonstrators won’t let the intended audience into the building. The frustrated worry on his face is clear, which eventually bubbles over as the few who made it to his talk begin to walk out. Isaach De Bankolé actually has a similar role as delegate Abasi, looking to get more respect on the international stage. And André Benjamin makes a lot from relatively little as Django, maintaining an upbeat, though not impervious spirit in the face of being ignored by the press and arrested by the police.
There’s one character, Johnson (Channing Tatum), who suffers being a bit stock, which is rather reflected in the most basic name possible. He’s a young cop who can’t wait to get out there and enforce the law on these protestors, but changes his tune when he finds himself on the wrong end of a billy club. That’s kind of it. He does get some dramatic splash-back from his friendship with Dale, but that’s just a residual thing.
And then there’s the media, represented by Jean, played by Connie Nielsen. She’s an on-the-streets TV reporter, going live from the demonstration, and who plunges into the melee with her cameraman when it all hits the fan. She’s certainly not unwilling to chase the story, nor is she shy of ignoring her bosses and dropping the story in favour of lending a hand, either to injured parties or making her own statement… I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to make of her. She’s too individual to be “the media”, but then that rather cuts down on her as an effective representation of her field. I certainly liked her and thought Nielsen was good, but that may be it. Her own on-air protest is okay, but it’s a bit fleeting and doesn’t seem like it has a huge impact… I don’t know. For the amount of importance placed on the media in such instances, you just expect the character to have way more dramatic weight. It’s just a bit anaemic.
As can perhaps be gathered, Townsend’s script is relatively hit-and-miss, with most of the responsibility being placed on the actors for covering holes. As a director, he’s certainly got some great moments on the screen. The demonstrations and riots do have a good feeling of being in amongst it all, the camera often taking on the literal role of a demonstrator’s POV, placing the viewer in direct firing line of mace-wielding police. There are some effective bouts of claustrophobic panic as people run every which way, too. Amidst all of the emotive thrall of riots and people getting beaten and pepper-sprayed (a fair bit of this comes from actual news footage not dissimilar to those being seen at the OWS protests), Townsend has also actually done a pretty good job setting the geo-political stage. The film begins with a sequence explaining whom the WTO are, why they were built and why they get protested so much. It’s clear, concise and effectively done to aid people like me who need the crash course.
However, Townsend’s clarity does rather ebb away as the film goes on. The film seems to have the same problem that occurred during the demonstrations, which is that it allows all the different factions to come along and distract from what was the central issue in the beginning. Points of hope and despair are dropped about so casually that, by film’s end, you’re not sure if anything was actually accomplished, or even could be. Certainly, most of the characters we followed seem happy, some even calling it all a success, but a final series of titles and photos would suggest that nothing was really achieved.
And this sort of brings me on to attempting to engage with the political side of things: what does this film actually want to achieve? I suppose the short answer would be that the film wants you to sit up, take notice, get involved, fight the good fight. However, it makes it seem like, in the end, it’s all rather hopeless. There are no villains (except for the faceless WTO), but only differing opinions, tactics, causes. Everyone ends up treading on the others’ toes, which drowns out the message at the centre of it all. Political posturing gets in the way of the media, which gets in the way of the demonstrators, who get in the way of the delegates and doctors, and since the demonstrators lack direct action, it brings on the anarchists, who smother the protests and set off the police, who then go clubbing their way through the masses whilst under orders from upper echelons who are taking political pressure because the businesses (big and small) are being affected. Even within the demonstrators, there’s arguments over which causes come first, like labour versus poverty versus corporate greed versus environment versus health… good God, it does go on. It’s no bloody wonder a clear message is difficult to grab hold of.
Now, obviously, you don’t expect answers from films like these. If it were able to answer the problems it looked at, then we wouldn’t really have those problems anymore, and we clearly do, as evidenced by the OWS protests happening right now. For those who aren’t too sure what that’s all about, here’s a very potted version:
Occupy Wall Street is an ongoing series of protests in New York and other states that seek to resolve the growing socio-economic inequality in the world and end the influence of corporate lobbying on Washington politics. It was mostly co-ordinated through social network sites like Facebook and began on September 17th 2011. It started when, back in July, a Toronto-based counter-culture magazine called Adbusters posted an article, #OCCUPYWALLSTREET, which appealed to have 20,000 people to assemble in Lower Manhattan, setting up tents, kitchens and “peaceful barricades” and thereby occupying Wall Street. The idea is basically to demand that President Obama ordain a presidential commission whose job it will be to end the influence of money in US politics. On September 17th of this year, an estimated 1,000 protesters gathered in Lower Manhattan despite police blockades surrounding the Wall Street Stock Exchange. Initially, there wasn’t much news coverage, but that changed when the demonstrators tried to march north and were confronted by police officers, leading to dozens of arrests. In the fray, two female protesters were sprayed with pepper spray, which was caught on video and instantly hit YouTube. This in turn triggered a call for Internet Vigilantism, to which many responded by posting the identity, including a photo, of the officer responsible. Other troubles came when around 1,500 protestors tried to march across the Brooklyn Bridge on October 2nd, but were met with heavy police resistance, with more than 700 protestors arrested for violating the law of occupying the roadway. Many protestors have gone on record as saying they felt like they were “lured into a trap,” having been escorted part of the way across the bridge before finally being contained. After this, similar protests sprouted in other cities, like Boston, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. The movement has been accused of having a lack of direction, though most participants feel their goal is clear: to end the overwhelming influence of corporations and the wealthy in governmental policy-making, and to promote an economic system that benefits everyone, ensuring fairness and equality for all socio-economic walks of life.
Sound familiar? After having watched Battle in Seattle, it does to me. It all actually lines up with the final feeling you get left with at the end of the film, which is this: The old issues keep coming back, no matter what. Townsend clearly wants people to get involved, but it presents such an overwhelming task that you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d be genuinely inspired by it all. I feel more smothered in all of this understanding and balance. You’re likely to feel more impotent and frustrated than driven and motivated…
I’m looking over what I’ve written in all this and, typically, it looks like I’ve tied myself in knots trying to get to grips with the enormity of the real issue at the film’s core. And this is what happens. You may feel the need to act, but it all seems so pointless. You want to help, but you see the myriad ways in which it can be short-circuited. Whilst it’s not a completely depressing affair, it’s not the hopeful film it needs to be to inspire.
God, I should’ve just stuck to the film review side of things. That I can do.
Battle in Seattle is, if nothing else, an interesting film. It highlights important issues, brings a significant event to the attention of people who may have missed it in all the pre-Millennium stuff, and gives people something to talk about. However, I get the feeling that Townsend wants people to do more than just talk about it, which I’m not really sure comes off. That the film was a huge failure at the box office (it made less than $1million) would suggest that few saw it and so therefore it’s impact was minimal. I would say to find it and give it a watch. It may inspire, it may not, but it deserves at least one viewing and will make you that little bit better informed, which is never a bad thing.