Published November 1, 1998
Arab-Americans are protesting against the portrayal of Arabs in The Siege, the new movie by Edward Zwick, and so of course the politically correct will argue among themselves for a while about whether or not Arabs are being stereotyped as terrorists. The film’s apologists claim that, by including a token Arab (played by Tony Shalhoub) who is meant to be sympathetic, it debunks the notion of the Arab-as-terrorist and refocuses our attention instead on how counter-terrorist measures, by impinging upon civil liberties, make the cure worse than the disease. Meanwhile, it occurs to no one, apparently, to protest against the fact that the movie commits to film a far more vicious stereotype than that of the terrorist Arab: that of the crazy, ruthless, corrupt and megalomaniacal American general.
Ever since General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove, Hollywood has fostered this stereotype assiduously. In fact, it would be easier to count the number of American generals in American movies who are not murderous thugs, seeking to subvert democracy and the rule of law, than those who are. This one, General Devereaux (Bruce Willis) cleverly gets to impose martial law on Brooklyn by pretending he doesn’t want to. Please don’t throw me in dat briar patch, he cries. He claims to be more opposed to sending in the Army to deal with an outbreak of terrorism in New York than any card carrying member of the ACLU. And the authorities fall for it! What they don’t know is that he is operating his own foreign policy. Having snatched an Arab sheik thought to be linked to terrorism, he has apparently gone to his civilian masters and said, “Oops, I lost him” — although he really still has him. Meanwhile, Arab terrorists are killing hundreds of innocent women and children in order to get him back.
Maybe. It may also be that they are doing it just because they like to do it, as they seem to make no demands. At any rate, Devereaux likes them to do it, because that gives him an excuse to take the army into Brooklyn and start harassing people at will. Of course President Bill Clinton, whom the picture makes no attempt to disguise under a fictional name, agrees to this plan, even though it is never made clear to the audience what could possibly be accomplished in Brooklyn by 10,000 armed troops. There is no breakdown of public order, no rioting in the streets. Life continues as normal, except that there are a dozen or so undercover terrorists setting off bombs. What could soldiers standing on street corners accomplish in such a situation?
But, as in nearly all the product of Hollywood these days, plausibility is a very low priority. Hollywood is so awash in money, its largely teenage audience so uncritical of the rubbish they are being shown, that self-indulgence is the order of the day. The minor monarchs of the fantasy industry amuse themselves by giving free reign to fantasy and rearranging reality more to their liking. Here, they even have the FBI proclaiming Bill Clinton’s innocence of the charge of misbehavior with Monica Lewinsky! Not that the fact that Bill the Good is head of the government makes the slightest difference to Hollywood’s exploitation of paranoia about government agencies. Even more absurd than sending the army into Brooklyn is having a tender-hearted CIA agent (Annette Bening) sleeping with her Arab undercover contact (Sami Bouajila) while the hero FBI agent (Denzel Washington) has her followed, arrested, and incarcerated — all, apparently, without the superiors of either of them noticing anything. And then the FBI and the CIA agent team up together to wage war on the army! Happens all the time, this kind of interagency rivalry.
But the only real point to the film is to associate and right-wing opinions and hostility to Clinton with threats to democracy. General Devereaux is advertised as villain from the start by saying about President Clinton: “He doesn’t know f*** all about the Middle East that I don’t put on his cue cards. . . He’s just an expert in covering his own ass.” Perish the thought! And with the news that Miss Benning’s CIA agent is involved in the search for the terrorists, he scornfully says, “a woman will never understand the Mideast. Between you and me, she wouldn’t know a sheik from a prophylactic of the same name.” Boo! Hiss! Those supposedly maligned Arabs may take hostage a room full of kindergartners (oh please!) but none of them says anything as blatantly self-discrediting as this! So why aren’t the generals demonstrating against this idiotic film.
By the way, Arianna Huffington appears in a cameo on a talk show, along with some other pundits, supposedly talking about the terrorist threat, and recommending that the army be sent in. She should be ashamed of herself for lending her name and face and voice to such a scurrilous bit of anti-military propaganda