Battle in Seattle


Police and protesters clash in Seattle.

Police and protesters clash in Seattle.

(Redwood Palms) Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, Isaach de Bankole, Ray Liotta, Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, Andre Benjamin, Connie Nielsen, Channing Tatum, Joshua Jackson, Rade Sherbedzija. Directed by Stuart Townsend

As 1999 drew to a close and the focus of most people was on the approach of the Millennium, the World Trade Organization, a group born out of the Marrakesh Agreement of 1995 whose purpose is to facilitate trade between nations, prepared to hold a conference in Seattle. Although the group was ostensibly for the purpose of making trade easier, it had become a means for wealthy, industrial nations to impose their will on poorer, emerging nations. Their policies had begun to attract international attention and controversy, and their conference would become a watershed event – for all the wrong reasons.

Jay (Henderson) is an activist much respected among his peers for his responsible leadership and his ability to organize massive, peaceful protests. His brother died during a protest of timber logging, and that event has guided Jay’s every move as an activist. Django (Benjamin) is, like Jay a respected activist and organizer, but whereas Jay is intense and serious, Django is much easy-going and genial. Lou (Rodriguez) is a protester who is bitter and frustrated, her perception being that peaceful protests don’t work against the morally bankrupt. She argues that more drastic measures would be needed to get the attention of those who only respond to power and force. Sam (Jennifer Carpenter) has a nursing background and while she agrees with Jay’s tactics and politics, doesn’t have the will to stand up and be counted.

They, along with thousands of others, have descended upon Seattle to protest the WTO talks there and if possible, bring those discussions to a standstill. They hold the WTO responsible for hunger, poverty and death in the Third World due to their unbalanced policies geared at insuring the rich get richer.

Seattle mayor Jim Tobin (Liotta) is concerned about the protests. He is proud that Seattle landed the conference of a prestigious international organization, and yet he walks a fine line with the protesters; he speaks to the WTO delegates praising the organization and welcoming them to his city, and then later the same day speaks to the protesters, slamming the WTO and asking the protesters to be peaceful in their demonstrations.

Dale (Harrelson) is a Seattle cop who is sympathetic to the protesters, but ready to maintain order. His wife Ella (Theron) is pregnant and works at a fashionable boutique in downtown Seattle. He lets her know about the protests scheduled there for the day and worries that traffic might be snarled. She brushes away his concerns.

Jean (Nielsen) is a television reporter covering the protests for her station. She is essentially apolitical, and is more concerned with getting the story than with taking sides. She’s ambitious and looking to make a name for herself.

At first, the protests are peaceful and effective, shutting down traffic around the conference venue and forcing talks to halt.  However, a small group of anarchists escalate matters, damaging the property of shops carrying goods that bring profits to those they feel are benefitting from the WTO’s immoral policies. The media picks up on this subset of the protest and worried officials from Washington state (as well as Washington DC) bring enormous pressure onto Mayor Tobin to give the go-ahead for police to use more aggressive tactics in dispersing protesters, as well as call in the National Guard to assist.

Mayor Tobin is reluctant at first, worrying that this will only further inflame matters but eventually capitulates. True to his worst nightmare, the protests descend into riots, with police brutalizing the protesters and firing tear gas into crowds of people. Ella, caught in the crossfire, is cruelly beaten by Dale’s fellow officers. Dale is heartbroken and angry at this, begging his commanding officer to be excused from duty but the riots have become too widespread – all hands are needed. This turns out to be a very bad idea.

This is a fictionalized account of actual events. First-time director Townsend (an actor best known for his role as Lestat in Queen of the Damned) integrates actual footage of the riots into his recreation of the chaos which lends an air of authenticity that is the movie’s strongest feature. Unfortunately, some of the subplots – particularly the romance between Jay and Lou – serve to muddle things up and eventually come off as unnecessary and unwanted.

It’s an impressive cast assembled here, with Harrelson deserving particular kudos as the cop conflicted by his political beliefs, and his outrage and anger at what happens to his wife. Liotta, who’s become a first-class character actor, is splendid as the bureaucratic mayor who watches helplessly as events spiral out of control.

Most of the rest of the cast has to suffer through cliché-ridden roles, with Henderson as the passionate and beloved activist, haunted by demons and Rodriguez as a poor little rich girl with daddy issues. Theron (Townsend’s wife in real life) has little to do other than look alarmed and scream loudly when she is attacked.

However, the shortcomings of the script don’t overcome the power of the story. The Seattle riots are widely considered a watershed event of American activism of recent years and managed to focus attention, albeit briefly, on the abuses within the WTO. The filmmakers have a definite agenda but the fault with the escalating violence is not placed in one camp or the other. Fingers can certainly be pointed in both directions. It should also be noted that the filmmakers depiction of anarchists causing property damage and in essence instigating the police response has been denied vehemently by anarchist groups that actually participated in the protests that day.

The important thing for our purposes is whether the movie is entertaining and/or informative. The former is certainly true and the latter is true as well. So the movie is at least successful on those fronts. I think that there is still a more compelling movie to be made on this subject, perhaps a dramatized version of the real people and events of the protests. Until it is, this one will do.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-staged dramatizations of the protests, mixed in with archival footage make those scenes some of the most compelling of the film. Ray Liotta and Woody Harrelson in particular deliver solid performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The extraneous romantic subplot grinds the movie to a halt and many of the characters are little more than clichés.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is pretty coarse throughout and there are some disturbing images during the protest scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In one of the shots of the riots, Quest Field appears in the background. At the time of the actual riots, Quest Field hadn’t been built yet. Instead, the Kingdome stood on that site.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A featurette on the background of the WTO.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Surrogates