Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Kingdom -- violence breeds violence

The Kingdom has all the potential to be a first-rate political thriller, great actors, interesting premise, terrific set-pieces, but ends up feeling stolid and somewhat predictable. Even the prelude, a documentary-like rapid history of Saudi Arabia, presumably there to educate us Americans so we know who the Wahhibi Muslims are, feels manipulative.

When two Islamic fundamentalists dressed as Saudi police break into an American compound in Riyadh, they start gunning down innocent Americans. They are eventually killed, but this is all a plot to draw an instant response team to the location where a car bomb subsequently goes off killing hundreds and shaking the kingdom to its core. One of the killed is a local FBI agent, and that raises the emotional temperature of the FBI state-side.

Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) heads up a large team of FBI investigators in Washington D.C. who have to watch this unfold on video thousand of miles away. Try though he does, he cannot get permission to take a team to investigate on-site. The Saudis don't want the Americans to take over, and the Americans want it all to disappear, since it is just another political hot potato. But with some scheming and subtle blackmail, Fleury gains acquiescence to bring a team of four to the kingdom for five days.

When they arrive they find their investigation is ham-strung by local politics. Appointed a protector, Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), they are baby-sat everywhere they go, and cannot conduct inquiries. The real inquiry is being led by an inept and brutal Saudi soldier.

As time starts slipping away, Fleury wins first Faris to his side, and then one of the many crown princes, and they begin to do real work. At one point, interviewing a father of a murdered wife, the widower yells at Faris, "Does Allah love your kids more than mine?" A tough question, the question of why some die and others live, the movie immediately abandons any attempt at an answer. Later, before going into a room of terrorists, Fleury asks, "Which side do you think Allah's on?" Both questions are symptomatic of the film, raising important issues but dropping them unanswered.

The Kingdom shows both militant Muslims as well as pacifist Muslims. It goes out of its way to show them praying, in mosques and in homes. The message is clear, there are lots of Muslims who don't agree with the fundamentalists' terror tactics. But there are also many who do, and the movie does gravitate towards these, showing them making suicide bomb vests and suicide cars.

The finale is an extended set-piece that sees one of the FBI agents kidnapped amidst a violent car chase through the perilous streets of Riyadh (everywhere outside the compound appears scary and dangerous, with everyone being a potential enemy). With three FBI agents and one Saudi policeman, this small team ends up taking on what seems like half the city. Four guns against dozens of bad guys, some with rocket-propelled grenades. Yet in true Hollywood fashion, the good guys emerge from this firestorm with no serious wounds.

Where The Kingdom falls down is in its character development. We see Fleury with several children, one his own, but we know nothing about his family situation. And the three team members, played by Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, are cardboard characters, never drawn out. Not knowing them, we don't really root for them. We root for them as FBI agents, roles not real people. And the implication that only the US investigators are capable of solving this crime is nationalistic and patronizing. How is it that in less than five days, they are able to solve the crime, kill the radical Muslim leader, and come home unscathed? Does this happen in real life?

The issue here is violence. The terrorists' violence is deadly, dastardly, despicable, but is the response any better? The Saudis resort to brutal torture of one of their own, who seems to be innocent, and learn nothing. The FBI go to Saudi apparently to help solve the crime. But when Faris tells Fleury he wants to kill the culprits when they find them, Fleury understands, even seems to agree. And in the post-climactic scene, we learn something about both Fleury and the radical leader that leaves us wondering if Fleury is any different than the terrorists themselves.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was shaken by a bomb; in the aftermath, the initial act of violence bred more violence. Worse, it gets insidiously inside the minds of fair men and women and causes them to want to do violence. But there is a "kingdom that cannot be shaken" (Heb 12:28). That is the kingdom of heaven that Jesus spoke about and inaugurated while on earth. His methods were not those of violence. Rather, he spoke of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving your enemies, winning them over apart from violence and terror. That kingdom will come, and when it does the lion will lie down with the lamb, and there will be no more need for guns.

(For a different review of The Kingdom on this blog, see Mike Todd's thoughts: .)

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

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