Did The Siege predict the future?

(Note: This isn’t really a review and its incredibly spoiler heavy. Go, see the film and then come back.)

Back in 1998 Denzel Washington, Annette Benning, Bruce Willis (on one of his acting days) made a film called The Siege about New York coming under attack from terrorists (I know, I know, it’s not the most original of plots, bear with me.)

It’s a realistic portrayal of a city rocked by hit after hit , the stakes escalating as the Army, FBI and even the CIA attempt to stop the chaos being forced into more and more extreme measures in a battle of wills.

A flop on arrival in 1998 this became the most rented film in America after the 9/11 attacks and has always been in the back of my mind whenever I hear about a new law to protect “Freedom” or hear about another devastating attack like the one in Paris or Beruit or Mali or any of a hundred places around the globe.

More specifically, I remember a speech that Denzel gives to Bruce at the end of the film when they are debating whether the ends do indeed justify the means.

Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard: Come on General, you’ve lost men, I’ve lost men, but you – you, you *can’t* do this! What, what if they don’t even want the sheik, have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we’re doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for is over. And they’ve won. They’ve already won!

This is just one of many speeches that is given in this film (It’s a little preachy.- I never said this was going to trouble the Academy.) And it describes in a realistic way that “Freedom” is traded for “Security” and that Bruce Willis morphs from a general reluctantly ordered to impose military law in Brooklyn morphs into someone who is ruthless and crosses lines that we don’t even see as lines any more. This film debated the ethics of torture, forced internment, arrest without trial, and whether terrorists should be given rights whilst they are being detained.

(If your wondering about my own personal feelings, torture is completely ineffective/horrific and everyone should get the same rights which includes the right to a fair trial and lawyer.)

Watching this film again in 2015 I’m struck by how far backward we’ve gone. Not just in terms of our moral debate but in terms of our quality of film-making. When was the last time in a film or television episode that there was a debate about the ethics of torture that didn’t end with Jack Bauer slicing up that episodes villain? Hell, there was even a torture scene in this years Spongebob film!

After the first attack, people trust the FBI to do their jobs, then after the attacks keep coming the public demand the Army step in and then everything escalates.

When this film was released, it bombed because according to the screenwriter  “Muslim and Arab protesters picketed the theaters. They were furious at being stereotyped as terrorists.” I feel its rather balanced, showing that not all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists and even showing the other communities rallying round, decrying that this is a vulnerable, visible minority with no power.

I’m not saying The Siege is a perfect film. The dialogue is preachy, the camerawork never more than adequate, the score mediocre but the more I watch the more it seems like a canary in the coal mine. A warning about what was about to happen, an invitation to a debate that never existed.

And that makes me worry about the future.

Peace out people.

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