10 April 2009

BATTLE in SEATTLE (Dir. Stuart Townsend, 2008, US) - Fight The Power...

It seems these days that any film can be considered political in some way. Yet the apolitical nature of mainstream Hollywood cinema continues to stress the need for conservatism. Those films which can be considered leftist polemics still tend to originate from the margins of American independent cinema. Hollywood’s reluctance to deal with relevant and contemporary political issues is easily justified by an over eagerness to explain away such a problem, equating politics with the box office. This may be true to a certain extent as audiences have struggled with overtly politicised film making especially those backed by major studios. With the relative exception of George Clooney who has become strongly associated with the political thriller genre, having starred in three of the most interesting and significant political films of recent years (Michael Clayton, Syrianna and Good Night, Good Luck) the majority of the A list elite have been quietly subservient to their status as bankable box office draws. EBay founder turned Hollywood producer, Jeff Skoll, set up Participant Productions just as the affects of September 11 and America under George Bush were filtering through into mainstream Hollywood films. Syrianna is possibly the most striking example of a film that is unafraid of representing terrorism as a complex geopolitical one. Most of these politically oriented films have benefited from George Clooney’s status as a bankable box office draw and one could argue that his presence in many of these films has really been the over riding reason why they have attracted widespread press coverage and achieving moderate commercial success. Maybe then Clooney and Skoll are merely exploiting a niche that has worked well both critically and commercially. If this is just more Hollywood paying lip service to liberal film making then it will be interesting to see how long Clooney can maintain what amounts to a Robert Redford like political star image.

Apart from Brian De Palma with Redacted, none of the old wave of established auteur's like Scorsese or Coppola have tried to deal with either the corrupt Presidency of George Bush or the war in Iraq. However, Spielberg with Munich has come the closest to making one of the fiercest and most compelling mainstream studies of how terrorism is far removed from the simplistic polarised rhetoric espoused by the Bush administration. It does seem ironic that such a political film would come from the most mainstream of Hollywood film makers yet Spielberg’s ability to make such a film and face very little interference from the studios or any kind of real political opposition illustrates the singularly unique position that he occupies in American cinema today.

Partly financed and directed by Irish actor Stuart Townsend, Battle in Seattle recreates the violent clashes that took place between police and anti globalisation protesters at the 1999 WTO talks in Seattle. You can see why somebody would want to make a film about what has come to be seen as a defining event in the history of today’s supposedly apathetic generation. Dubbed 'The Battle in Seattle’ by the worldwide media, the WTO protests saw anti globalisation at its peak. It was also a moment when public protest seemed to be politically effective in achieving the task of disrupting the talks and achieving the aim of bringing the world’s attention to how an elite group of hegemonic corporations and leaders continues to monopolise trade by restricting and suppressing the economic development of developing nations especially Africa. Most recently, Richard Linklater also criticised the forces of globalisation and corporate domination with Fast Food Nation. The box office for many of these similarly styled political films has been grim and the difficulty with securing a wide distribution of prints and under funded marketing campaigns has worked effectively to keep audiences away. The resurgence of the documentary medium over the last ten years has produced many of the finest and astute dissections of corporate power. The Power of Nightmares, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bowling for Columbine, Outfoxed, Fog of War are just some notable examples.

As a film, Battle in Seattle tries to cram in far too many characters, plot lines and events into what is a suspicious running time of little over ninety minutes. Townsend seems out of his depth in many respects and though one can understand the noble intentions behind wanting to invest your own money into a worthwhile political lesson, the film suffers from a weak script that is devoid of any kind of political debate. Condensing the events of a number of days into a multi narrative that features a plethora of implausible characters is what makes the film into an over wrought political soap opera. Townsend just doesn’t go far enough when it comes to explaining the politics of the activists and the absence of ideological discussion from the activists perspective suggests a reluctance to politicise many of the characters in fear of invoking his own political sympathies. The film is also let down by an ensemble cast of actors who also seem out of their depth, with many cast in roles that simply don’t convince. Take for example Connie Nielsen as a news reporter who appears at the unlikeliest of moments, acting as though she has never witnessed or come across incidents of police brutality before. Such absurd coincidences are pushed into fantasy land when the pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) of a police officer (Woody Harrelson) is caught up in the protests and becomes the victim of a brutal attack by out of control police officers. It is a ridiculous scenario and the aftermath between Theron and Harrelson is played out with pondering close ups of candles and a mushy melodramatic score that is out of synch with the rest of the film’s focus on the clashes between the Seattle police and peaceful protesters. Nevertheless, had Townsend been much more confident with his representations of the political activists then it may have matched the assurance with which he depicts those characters who do have a platform from which to articulate their ideological concerns, namely the angry African delegate, the Doctor/Professor campaigning for cheaper medicine and the empathetic Mayor of Seattle.

The film does end on a markedly different tone to recent political films as this was one of the few times in which political protest did make a difference and the celebratory tone of defiance and muted victory by the protesters echoes the reality that the WTO were eventually forced to suspend the talks. Though the triumph of the WTO protests may never have changed many things in a geo-political context, it did for a short time express the collective will of a generation which has more or less become subsumed into the Starbucks culture of today’s corporate take over. The events of 1999 in Seattle are far too important and significant to be ignored by film makers as they continue to aspire people to resist corporate hegemony and I have a feeling that this may be the first of many films that are likely to be made about anti-globalisation especially in today’s bankrupt economic climate in which people feel deeply frustrated about why a select few continue to set the global social, economic and political agenda. I would still encourage everybody to watch Battle in Seattle, if only to engage with many of the intriguing political questions and debates posed by the film.

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