Editor's Note: While we work on our play by play of the Seattle International Film Festival's opening night please enjoy our feature review of the opening night film: Battle in Seattle.
Walking into a film with no buzz on it is a particularly worrisome thing. When I first read about Battle In Seattle in the online guide, I’ll admit, I yawned. Great, I thought, another version of Crash or Bobby with an overly political message to be rammed down my throat. But man, look at that cast. Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Martin Henderson, Andre Benjamin ("Andre 3000" to you music lovers), Michelle Rodriguez, Ray Liotta, and one of the true loves of my life, Jennifer Carpenter. And hell, it was playing at the same theater where I was seeing Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Curiosity and laziness got the best of me -- so I penciled it in.
And man, am I glad I did. As it turned out, it very much was like Crash and Bobby, except much better than I found either of those films. Centered on the infamous 1999 Seattle WTO riots, it follows the point of view of protest ringleaders, the mayor, two police officers, a news crew, two WTO representatives and a pregnant housewife. We watch as these characters are forced into conflict in one way or another. From the rioters engagement with the police to the mayor trying to hold the city together to the WTO members undercut by a riot separating them from achieving their goals, this film shows the many facets of people all trying to save the world amid a very bad situation.
The result is an enthralling explosion of conflicting ideologies each executed by someone who believes they are doing their part to make the world a better place: from the officers trying to keep the peace to the mayor, who feels both parties should have a say, to the protesters trying to send a message while having to fight against the destructive anarchists in their midst. Battle In Seattle presents a series of very complicated issues that all point towards one conclusion –- that maybe having an unelected governing body control the commerce of all the most powerful nations in the world isn’t such a good idea.
Okay. So maybe it is a little more pointed than that. Maybe the word "evil" comes to mind after seeing the film. So yeah, it’s propagandistic. It has a very deliberate message. But it happens to be incredibly good propaganda. The argument is put smack-dab in the middle of an edge-of-your-seat barn burner of a drama. And with the unbelievable sound design of the film, you feel like you are honest-to-god right there in the middle of a full-scale riot. There were times I could swear the audience was chanting and yelling with the film, only to realize that it was coming from the speakers of the theater itself.
Everyone does a great job, especially Martin Henderson, whose long string of bad or failed films have always seemed to keep him just out of reach of the career he seems to have been promised. Once again he plays the rakish, handsome lead, but this time he’s got a message. And there’s a lot of depth to this character for Henderson to work with; he's finally getting to show the chops some of us assumed he had (since he just kept getting hired for things despite the fact that he never "took off").
And Stuart Townsend, the longtime actor turned first-time director here, my god man, he really outdid himself. This is one of those from out of nowhere directorial debuts, not unlike Sean Penn, where you see that there really is a second career in this guy. He really knew what the hell he was doing behind the camera and it shows. He got great performances out of everybody and yet, unlike most actors-turned-directors (like Denzel Washington is his recent The Great Debaters) actually had a lot of visual style and flair. Most actors never seem to do anything interesting with the camera (their focus being on the story and acting), but Townsend manages to keep his eye on both, making what is a visually arresting film about what would seem to be fairly mundane subject matter. He has a way of putting you in the riot. And that’s a pretty special gift.
Overall, this was fairly compelling filmmaking. As a film on the riots, it was a solid “from the ground” piece of work. But it was fairly slanted and while I personally can’t think of a single good thing to say about the WTO, you kind of want to hear SOMETHING in defense of an organization like that for a little bit of balance. And in that I find the film's only real flaw. If you’re the type of person who refuses to see a film that takes a political slant, this is SO not the film for you. However, if you’re looking for something to chew on -- something complicated filled with great performances and a stylish flair –- Battle In Seattle might be the film for you.