The Kingdom, Universal’s $70 million contribution to the burgeoning Iraq/War-on-Terror genre, will not hit theaters until September 28, but already word on the film is immensely encouraging: all the right people hate it. A predictable early reaction—surely a harbinger of hand-wringing to come—came from Variety critic John Anderson, who damned the film as “jingoistic,” complaining that it turns “anonymous, indigenous peoples into ducks at a shooting gallery.”
Having caught the film at a sneak preview this past weekend, I can confirm that lots of “indigenous peoples” get theirs in this terrifically entertaining thriller—but they are “anonymous” only in the way that we don’t know the names of the Nazi soldiers firing on our troops on Omaha Beach in The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan. We know who they are—bloodthirsty terrorists—and in The Kingdom they get their just deserts by the cartload, without apology.
This shouldn’t be a big deal, but of course it is. In a season featuring pictures from Brian De Palma and Paul Haggis that portray the War on Terror as an evil travesty and American troops as psychopathic murderers, to find a film so straightforwardly on “our side”—to use the sneer quotes preferred by the New York Times—is almost too much to hope for. Indeed, I kept waiting for the Americans to make a horrific mess of things, or at least for someone to ask some version of “Why do they hate us?” But down to a spot-on ending that recalls the slaughter of Daniel Pearl, that never happens. Instead, we hate them, and manifestly for the right reasons.
Not that The Kingdom is heavy handed in its politics or anything else. Produced by Michael Mann and directed by the gifted Peter Berg, the man responsible for both the film and TV versions of Friday Night Lights, it tells the story of an FBI team dispatched to Saudi Arabia after a terrorist attack on an American compound not unlike the real-life horror of the Khobar Towers. Very deftly, between the lines, it also conveys a chilling sense of a society frozen in repression. The problem here is not only terrorism, but Islamic culture itself, unalterably opposed to the independence of mind that is the FBI crew’s best weapon. Where else would we see a female medical examiner, on the verge of a breakthrough, suddenly, hysterically interrupted in her work when she reaches over to touch a Muslim victim? Or young children being schooled in murder even as they play with dolls and marbles? Or, for that matter, a State Department official so craven that he tailors his every word and gesture to avoid giving offense to those who embrace this culture?
The State Department man is played, with toothy obsequiousness, by Jeremy Piven, part of a terrific cast led by Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, and Jason Bateman. But perhaps the most arresting performance of all is by an unknown, Ashraf Barhorn, as a Saudi colonel who comes to appreciate that American investigative methods are superior to those of his own closed society.
How good is this film? Let’s put it this way: in promotional appearances, director Berg has gone out of his way to deemphasize its political content. “I didn’t want to make something so political that people felt they were having spinach rammed down their throat,” he told one online interviewer. “I wanted people to be affected by a piece of entertainment.” If you live in Hollywood, that’s called making sure you still have a career when the dust clears.
Berg needn’t worry—I bet the film will be a blockbuster. In the suburban New York theater where I saw it, the audience, full of New York Times readers and NPR listeners, seemed not only shaken afterward, but a little confused: the Americans were the good guys, and they won. But reports have it that elsewhere in the country, audiences are cheering.