The Battle in Seattle (2007) dir. Stuart Townsend
Starring: Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Henderson, Ray Liotta, Andre Benjamin, Woody Harrelson
Actor Stuart Townsend’s first feature film is the most unlikely of first films - a political action character drama about the violent and chaotic WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. The film dramatizes the events of the three violent days which saw protestors violently battle the police in the name of anti-globalization and human rights. Townsend’s debut is competent, but not stellar. It’s unfortunate because a story like this needs to be stellar in order to succeed. It can’t be competent. And by making a film like this he’s going to be compared to the master of this genre – Paul Greengrass, whose film “Bloody Sunday” is still far and away the top bar for this type of film. “The Battle in Seattle” doesn’t come close.
The film uses fictional characters and subplots to tell the true story of the violence that plagued the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle. We get to see the planning of both the police and the protesters at the beginning of the film - both sides are aware of each other and both try to outwit each other in order to claim the upper hand. The protestors led by Jay (Martin Henderson), Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) and Django (Andre ‘3000’ Benjamin) do get the upper hand and manage to block off entry to the headquarters. Mayor Jim Tobin, who wanted to keep the day non-violent is forced to use tear gas to disperse the protestors. Three days of fighting results in escalating violence that tears the city apart.
By shooting the film handheld, in your face, and visceral, Townsend clearly intends to tell the story in a ‘realist’ fashion – like “Bloody Sunday”. Unfortunately it’s transparent, Instead of trusting the power of situation, he relies on unnecessary melodramatic contrivances and artificiality. For example, Officer Dale’s (Woody Harrelson) wife has just miscarried as a result of the violence. When Dale asks his superior if he can take the next day off to be with his wife, the Chief tells him no - he’s needed on the street. This scene serves to fuel Harrelson’s anger which he takes out on one of the protestors. But the manipulate scene is unnecessary and unrealistic. As well, towards the end of the film when Dale apologizes to the man he beat up, their conversation feels more out of the on-the-nose “Crash” rather than the natural realism of “Bloody Sunday”.
Much of the political dialogue is terribly on-the-nose as well. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and doesn’t shy away from blatantly telling the audience what they should feel about the WTO and Globalization. Of course, it’s a partisan film, but it would have been more powerful to ‘show’ the message instead of telling us. Again, the power of the situation could have done that on its own.
In the end, the protestors rejoice in a claimed victory when the trade talks are cancelled. I was left shaking my head. After all the violence, clearly escalated by mob-mentality actions on both sides of the fence, for the protestors to rejoice joyously is an insult to its audience.
“The Battle in Seattle” is on par with Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby” – another flawed actor’s passion project. Both films take a blatant melodramatic approach to a story that doesn’t need massaging. Both films are filled with great star power which doesn’t actually add any authenticity – in fact, the famous faces distract us. We shouldn’t be saying in the middle of the film “hey, isn’t that Joshua Jackson?” You just have to re-watch Greengrass’ “United ‘93”, which successfully used unknown and non-actors in all the roles. That film is more powerful, less expensive and will be more successful than Townsend’s film. And I’m very surprised Townsend didn’t go that route because he was clearly aware of the Greengrass comparisons. That’s why he hired “United 93’s” DOP, Barry Ackroyd to lens his film.
Saying all that, Townsend’s film is a noble effort and it shows some skill with actors, cameras and editors. I look forward to his next project.