‘Battle in Seattle’: Agit-prop agita

September 20, 2008

 

I like a good piece of agit-prop as much as the next guy but you hate to feel like you’re being manipulated by a movie that’s stacked the deck so obviously as “Battle in Seattle.”

Written and directed by actor Stuart Townsend, this film wants to put viewers inside the riots that broke out in 1999 when the World Trade Organization came to Seattle and was met by a mass of well-organized demonstrators (the first real Internet-fueled protest), who wanted to shut the meeting down.

Townsend takes viewers to meetings of the protesters, led by a generic trio (Martin Henderson, Andre Benjamin, Michelle Rodriguez) who are committed both to nonviolence and to calling attention to their issues: that massive corporate democracies (such as the U.S.) call the shots at the expense of developing nations, which lack the financial wherewithal to gain negotiating traction to help themselves.

He also spends time with the Seattle mayor (Ray Liotta), who is trying to maintain the city’s good-guy image by allowing protests without impacting the conference itself. Unfortunately, it’s one of those immovable object/irresistible force kind of deals that eventually explodes in violence.

The protesters’ tactics flummox the cops: They nonviolently block the streets and the convention center, effectively canceling the first day of the meeting. To honor the mayor’s intention would mean to cancel the meeting altogether – unthinkable, given the financial windfall it means to the city. So the cops are unleashed – at least a little – to remove the protesters.

Unhappy with the low-key nature of protesters, anarchists take matters into their own hands, running wild in downtown Seattle. That’s the signal to unleash the police, who run amok, brutalizing all protesters.

The actual event was a massive clusterfuck, a combination of business greed, civic overreaching and disorganization among the various groups of demonstrators, who couldn’t control the violent elements in their midst (that’s why they’re called anarchists, I guess).

But Townsend’s schematic film draws the characters in bold strokes and tells you what to think. The most egregious plot element involves a conscientious cop (Woody Harrelson) who is married to a department store saleswoman (Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, who happens to be the unofficial Mrs. Townsend). When the anarchists invade the downtown store where she works, she tries to go home – and instead, gets caught in the middle of the riot, where a vicious cop whacks her in the belly with a nightstick.
Oh, and did I mention she’s extremely pregnant? And that she loses the baby, provoking her ambivalent hubby to beat the shit out of protester Henderson in a rage-induced moment? (That he later apologizes to him only makes the whole incident seem that much more written and calculated.)

Do I doubt that the Seattle cops were capable of an unprovoked attack on a pregnant woman? Of course not; this country’s history is littered with well-documented incidents of police overreaction to political protest. Consider just the era of mass-media alone, roughly the last 50 years: The archives are filled with footage of everything from the various civil rights marches of the early 1960s through the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago (which most people classify as a police riot) up to and including the totalitarian tactics of police in Minneapolis and St. during the recent Republican convention.

But Townsend’s passion about these issues – whether major-power bullying of developing nations or police brutality to demonstrators – leads him to overplay every hand and every scene. Characters don’t utter dialogue; they give speeches, even in interpersonal moments.

“Battle in Seattle” has important information to impart – and to Townsend’s credit, he is eager to spread it in a way that could draw an audience much larger than a documentary on the subject would ever reach. He enlists big-name stars, gooses the action, chooses sides. Unfortunately, you get the impression that he’s preaching to the choir.

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