THE KINGDOM (Peter Berg, USA, 2007, 7)
I saw this film in the company of a group of counter-terrorism analysts, the majority of whom have at least some facility with Arabic and in whose company I was probably the least knowledgeable person about Arabian and Saudi politics and society. It was a bit of an intimidating experience, albeit one much preferable to seeing it with such deep geopolitical thinkers as Kenneth Turan of the LA Times (“across-the-board portrait of malevolent Arabs [with a] … thematic similarity to those jingoistic World War II-era ‘Yellow Peril’ films”) or Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly (“[the] theft of images forever associated with the hideous killing of journalist Daniel Pearl … a decent person might look away in disgust. The sight of a masked gunman on a balcony evokes the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, but for no good reason.”)
The film promises to be great in its first two scenes — a historical montage and a terrorist assault on the American section of Riyadh. The former is as swift, direct and accurate as is reasonable to expect of a historical background primer (in this case, the history of US-Saudi ties) with just a couple of minutes to cover about 80 years. The latter shows Berg knows how to milk an action scene for both the suspense of preparation, the chaos of its violence, the swiftness of a suicide bomber, and the ultimate brutality of the whole plan, once revealed.
Which is a pity, because the rest of the movie is really only OK, with occasional flashes of excellence. Or rather, when THE KINGDOM is about the machinations of doing business in the byzantine political and social worlds of Washington and Riyadh, it is very good. But once those labyrinths has been negotiated, it retreats into familiar police procedural/action film territory. Berg keeps the sequences clear and intelligible, but THE KINGDOM eventually just hunkers down into the kind of routine spolosionfest that Hollywood’s assembly line cranks out like Detroit’s used to. The FBI team is a Benneton ad’s worth of diversity — a black, a woman, a Jew and a redneck — and it’s hard to resist wondering about the smarts of an FBI guy (or a scriptwriter) who would handle such a politically-sensitive mission by assembling such a squad (or rather, two-fourths of it).
Still, there’s a lot to like. Everyone with whom I saw THE KINGDOM agreed is that it gets Saudi society right — an “otherworld” where Americans are always outsiders and never can be certain whom they can trust and whom they cannot trust. There is a scene of a video-game parlor, where the kids play first-person jihad simulators and, upon seeing Jamie Foxx, ask the grandfatherly cafe owner (in unsubtitled Arabic that I still understood and confirmed afterward) whether they should kill the American. Saudi institutions are not the legal-rational secular bureaucracy that America’s are, but those of an honor-based Muslim patriarchy based on loyalty and family — everything depends on who one knows, and all appearances must be upheld, including avoidance of appearing too complicit with the infidels. It looks to us very much like corruption. Before you can do anything, you must negotiate the right to do it, though this is rhymed with similar machinations from head righteous dude Foxx, of the Beltway-Journalism genre, to get the trip in the first place.
There is also one very strong performance (Chris Cooper is good, but he can play this sort of good-o-bwoy in his sleep) — and that is Ashraf Barhom as the Saudi police minder for the group, the one character who has real depth and an arc. As for the rest of the Saudi police and functionaries and princes: they’re not really evil — just disinterested except when it involves saving face. A State Department functionary played by Jeremy Piven is suitably and realistically unctuous. A couple of people also said at dinner afterwards that the Arabic was correct, although there were some subtitle quibbles and a general consensus that, in the subtleties, it usually more resembled the Arabic of Israel or Lebanon than that of Saudi Arabia. But the greatest proof of this film’s worth and authenticity — Saudi Arabia has forbidden its importation.¹
The KINGDOM’s ending seems to traffic in moral equivalence — it’s revealed that two “death whispers” on opposite sides of the jihad were the same line. But in this context, it’s hardly supportive of the Peace Narrative. At some level, it’s useless to deny, “blowback” [sic] and “cycle of violence” [sic] are true. Or that all actors consider themselves moral superiors to opponents. But understand that this “blowback” and “cycle” are not the product of an optional war, but of a law-enforcement operation that is (or should be) supported by the sort of liberal who says he opposes the Iraq war because it supposedly distracts from the war against Al Qaeda (i.e., this kind of action). There is no getting around the fact that any war, just or unjust, wise or unwise, kills people and will leave behind family members who, cultural prerequisites existing, become bent on vengeance.
¹ The country has no public movie theaters, but many wealthy Saudis have private screening rooms and films usually can be imported for this purpose. Also, DVD players and discs are as ubiquitous there as in other rich countries.