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Wednesday, May 6, 2009
  DVD Review: Battle In Seattle

Ah, 1999. Those heady pre-9/11 days where the scariest thing we as a society could collectively conceive of was the fear our computers would crash that coming January 1. Terrorism was something that happened in faraway places, and a bunch of self-styled anarchists and anti-globalization activists managed to effectively shut down a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. It was a pretty huge story at the time, as what began as fairly standard protests soon escalated into rioting that impacted the entire city, and is still seen as a turning point in the anti-globalization movement. It’s since been largely forgotten about, but Irish actor Stuart Townshend (apparently inspired by an essay he read in 2002) has written and directed a film dramatizing the events. It’s always a dicey proposition when an actor makes his debut behind the camera, and while Townshend has a lot to say, Battle In Seattle is an overly simplistic and biased film that tries very hard to make its point, without really giving much thought to what that point actually is.

The first thing that struck me about Battle In Seattle is its cast. While not exactly packed with A-list stars (though it does feature Townshend’s real-life wife, Charlize Theron, in an important role, and Woody Harrelson plays her cop husband), it’s one of those movies in which just about every character with a speaking part is played by someone at least somewhat recognizable (though maybe that’s just because I watch a lot of movies). It reminded me of Bobby, Emilio Estevez’s similarly star-studded, vaguely political passion project about Robert Kennedy’s assassination (which I didn’t see). But for the most part, the actors, including Ray Liotta, Martin Henderson (star of my beloved Torque, which one day I’ll find an excuse to write about) and Channing Tatum, do a pretty solid job.

My main issue with Battle In Seattle is that Townshend clearly takes sides (with the protesters), which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It’s that he pays lip service to presenting a “balanced” view of the events, but it’s about as balanced as the average Fox News broadcast. The Harrelson character is meant to show how the cops aren’t necessarily all bad, despite the fact that the rest of the movie paints them pretty broadly as thuggish stormtroopers who can’t wait to crack some hippie skulls. Townshend also includes a tiny subplot about a doctor (the excellent character actor Rade Sherbedzija) attending the WTO summit to try to raise awareness of the cost of AIDS medication – a noble crusade by just about anyone’s standards – only to have his efforts derailed by the protests. It’s a fascinating moral grey area that Townshend never really does anything with – surely the protesters would be sympathetic to the doctor’s campaign, which they’ve unwittingly set back considerably – but he doesn’t go beyond including a couple of scenes of the doctor acting frustrated.

I’m all for taking artistic license in films “based on true events,” but in a movie like this, where the director clearly has a point of view he’s trying to convey (i.e. the WTO and globalization in general are bad), playing fast and loose with the facts to reinforce your point is a dangerous proposition, to say the least. In one scene, a random riot cop attacks Charlize Theron’s character, a pregnant clerk at a high-end retail store just trying to get home to safety (and she’s married to a cop – how ironic!) for no reason, and Townshend admits on the commentary that he took liberties with accounts of what actually happened to make the scene more dramatic. It smacks more of anti-globalization fanfiction than an honest attempt at portraying real events. And the token reporter (Connie Nielsen) starts out as a typically cynical journalist who doesn’t believe in anything before, over the course of about a day, she realizes how corrupt the system really is and decides to throw her lot in with the protesters. It could just be my own journalism background talking, but I found that whole subplot more than a little ridiculous.

Battle In Seattle feels like it was made by a 17-year-old suburban kid who just read Naomi Klein’s No Logo and has decided that all the world’s problems can be blamed on that old faceless antagonist, “corporate greed.” (And I say that as a guy who has more issues with capitalism than most; keep in mind, however, that I’m a Canadian, and we’re all a bunch of socialists up here.) There’s certainly many valid points to be made about the morally questionable things that the WTO (and other groups like it, or “big corporations” in general) do and are complicit in, but films as simplistic and prejudiced as Battle In Seattle don’t do much good to anyone. What is the point Townshend is trying to make? He doesn’t provide enough information about what the WTO does or what it stands for, aside from a quick primer in the opening title sequence, to say anything significant about it, other than it’s bad because it oppresses poor people (though how exactly it does that is never explored in any real detail). By focusing so much on the people – specifically the protesters, his noble, ragged hippie heroes – Townshend never really gets into what they’re fighting for. Or maybe the problem is that beyond their stated aim of ending something as nebulous and intangible as “corporate greed,” it’s the protesters themselves who’ve lost sight of what they were trying to accomplish? These are questions I certainly don’t pretend to have answers to, and I think the exploration pf them would make for some pretty interesting fodder for a movie. Sadly, Battle In Seattle is not that movie.

I respect that Townshend had something to say, and I’d probably agree with him on a lot of the issues presented here if I sat down and talked to him, but he probably should have cut his filmmaking teeth on a movie about another, less complex subject. To have Battle In Seattle not come off as clichéd and far too morally black-and-white as it does would have required a better director with more nuance (which is not to say that Townshend is a filmmaker without talent; I just think he bit off more than he could chew here.) As it is, Battle In Seattle is just a vanity project by an actor who doesn’t seem to have anything to say that hasn’t been said more eloquently elsewhere by more interesting people.



As mentioned above, Townshend contributes commentary alongside editor Fernando Villena, and he seems like a smart enough guy. It’s not a terribly thrilling track by any means, covering the usual bases of the ins and outs of the production (the film was financed by a Canadian company, and Vancouver stands in for Seattle), how certain shots and scenes were hard to pull off, etc. It’s all fairly basic stuff. Not bad, just unremarkable.

Also included are a couple of featurettes, one on the production and another called ‘The Battle Continues,” which features interviews with labour leaders and members of the U.S. Congress. The former is sort of standard making-of stuff (though Townshend’s presence is, curiously, limited to shots of him on the set while he narrates the whole affair, going over a lot of ground covered in the commentary). The latter is kind of interesting, if dry – if watching members of Congress and labour leaders discussing trade policy is your thing, get ready to be happy – and I appreciate that the DVD producers included some real-world content about the topics Townshend’s film covers. That said, it’s pretty one-sided, with just about everyone demonizing the WTO and breathlessly discussing the “Battle in Seattle” (the event, not the film) as some watershed historical moment. It’s all very rah-rah if you’re into that sort of thing. Personally, I was just glad it was fairly short.

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