Battle in Seattle
Toronto International Film Festival
TORONTO -- "Battle in Seattle" is a dramatic freeze-frame of five days in 1999 when tens of thousands of activists took to the streets of Seattle and virtually shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization in protest of globalization and environmental damage by multinational conglomerates and powerful governments. The film is something of a rarity for an American political film. While it makes no bones about where its sympathies lie, these fictional stories show a genuine fascination with the role politics plays on both sides of such confrontations and how things can spin out of control with no single person to blame.
Naturally, the film was made by a foreigner, Irish actor Stuart Townsend, who makes a remarkably confident writing and directorial debut. Political movies are always iffy at the boxoffice, but the time may be ripe this film: Mainstream concern over these issues today has caught up with the 1999 protest. And the weave of multiple storylines with an ensemble cast, not unlike "Bobby" or "Crash," gives the film an immediacy that could attract concerned adult audiences.
Indeed the Hollywood shorthand for "Battle in Seattle" could be "Bobby" meets "Medium Cool." Townsend and his team smoothly integrate archival news footage into stories of protestors, police, government officials, innocent bystanders and news people who experience five rough days in the final moments of the millennium.
First the activists come into focus. An amusing and prophetic opening sequence introduces one leader, Jay (Martin Henderson), as he rescues attractive tough girl Lou (Michelle Rodriguez), as the two dangle perilously from a crane to hang an anti-WTO sign. Soon everyone will be performing a high-wire act.
Jay and his good friend Django (Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000 from Outkast) have spent months preparing for this conference to insure the protest is peaceful and successful in shutting down the conference.
Mayor Jim Tobin (Ray Liotta) -- a fictional stand-in for Paul Schell who was mayor at the time -- is equally concerned with the first goal. A former Vietnam protestor himself, Tobin wants to give a legitimate arena to free speech so long as no one gets hurt. But his police chief is wary.
Among the police on duty, Dale (Woody Harrelson) is preoccupied with the pregnancy of wife Ella (Charlize Theron). He barely notices the rah-rah bloodlust of fellow cops such as the hardhead Johnson (Channing Tatum).
On Day One, organizers outsmart Seattle's containment plan. Protestors, some dressed as endangered animals, jammed key intersections downtown, trapping delegates in hotel rooms and causing the cancellation of opening ceremonies. Then anarchists take over, destroying property and hijacking the protest from its peaceful organizers.
On the second day, calls from the police chief, White House and an impatient governor overrule the mayor's best judgment. Police in riot gear respond to crowds with tear gas, pepper spray and brutal tactics. Later, the National Guard is called in, forcing news reporter Jean Asbury (Connie Nielsen) to switch from covering key issues such as delegate Dr. Maric's (Rade Sherbedzija) campaign for low-cost medicine in developing countries to covering what is essentially a police riot.
Hundreds swept from the streets wind up in jail, creating a dilemma for the mayor, who understands that worldwide news coverage and the sheer impossibility of sending each and every case to court have tied his hands. There is no way to save face.
The personal stories -- Jay and Lou's romance that falters on the barricades, Dale and Ella's tragedy, the mayor's predicament and Jay's own dicey legal status when he lands in jail -- are caught only in snatches and suffer from occasional contrivances. Yet they do humanize the conflict and raise the stakes all around. The film may not have the knockout energy of Paul Greengrass' docudrama "Bloody Sunday," but it doesn't have the superficiality of "Bobby" either.
Townsend has a good grasp of what happened in Seattle and how to convey these events in personal stories. He catches people under enormous stress that brings out the best and sometime the worst in them. Tempers flare, belligerence rules and physical and emotional pain ensues.
The 1999 issues on display have not gone away. If anything, things are much worse. Another Seattle may not happen because governments have learned how to better prepare. But public anger, corporate greed and worldwide unrest continue unabated. "Battle in Seattle" catches the opening skirmish.
BATTLE IN SEATTLE
A Hyde Park Films presentation of an Insight Studios/Remstar production in association with Proud Mary Entertainment and Redwood Palm Pictures
Writer/director: Stuart Townsend
Producers: Mary Aloe, Kirk Shaw, Maxime Remillard, Stuart Townsend
Executive producers: Julien Remillard, Ashok Amritraj, Vanessa Pereira
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Chris August
Costume designer: Andrea Des Roches
Music: One Point Six
Editor: Fernando Villena
Ella: Charlize Theron
Dale: Woody Harrelson
Mayor Jim Tobin: Ray Liotta
Jay: Martin Henderson
Lou: Michelle Rodriguez
Dr. Maric: Rade Sherbedzija
Django: Andre Benjamin
Jean: Connie Nielsen
Abasi: Isaach de Bankole
Johnson: Channing Tatum
Running time -- 98 minutes
No MPAA rating