BATTLE IN THE SEATTLE
Vern’s thoughts on the movie, the historical event, and Thursday’s
opening of the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival
NOTE: This is another one of those ones I sent in to Ain’t It Cool and they never ran it. But I was kind of thinking of making it a geocities exclusive anyway because I knew as soon as some asshole talkbacker pointed out it was long I would ram my head through a wall.
At a glance BATTLE IN SEATTLE might seem like a perfect opening film for this year’s Seattle International Film Festival. For one thing, it has the word “Seattle” in the title. For another it takes place in Seattle. Those are only two of the reasons.
But I was thinking it was a mistake because this is a movie about the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, screening within walking distance of where it happened, but most of the movie is filmed far away in Vancouver. And some of us might have a problem with that. Could be risky.
I got a big laugh when I flipped through the Seattle Weekly’s coverage of SIFF. The Weekly was bought out by Village Voice Media a year or two ago, so alot of their reviews now are just recycled from the weeklies in other cities. Here is a movie about protesting globalism in Seattle, and instead of a local perspective they re-use an old review from a previous film festival written by Texas-based Robert Wilonsky. Don’t call Alanis Morissette yet, I’m still looking into this, but I have reason to believe it may be ironic.
At least actor-turned-first-time-director Stuart Townsend acknowledged what he was up against when he introduced the movie. He asked how many people had been there during the protests and when the hands went up he said, “Oh shit.”
Well, he didn’t have to worry about this crowd. They gave it a standing ovation, they cheered every time some character made some political statement they agreed with (which was alot), or when it reminded them of something cool that happened during the protests. There was alot of attempted sticking it to the man going on in the Seattle Opera House. The audience questions afterwards gushed about the movie. And to be honest the switches to Vancouver were not as noticeable as I expected. You get used to movies taking place in Seattle and just having one helicopter shot of the Space Needle. This one had quite a few scenes in front of the real Paramount Theater, the Chief Seattle statue by Zeke’s Pizza, the monorail, and a shot of the Cinerama. You see, THE HOLLOW MAN 2, or CHAOS starring Wesley Snipes and Jason Statham? You could’ve done better.
So opening night was not the disaster I imagined. There weren’t many major regional faux pas other than Governor Gary Locke being given a Chinese accent. There were no protesters outside the opera house chanting “This is what Seattle looks like.” So that was all good but in my opinion the movie was not. I hate to say it, because Townsend seems like a nice, sincere guy (and Charlize Theron is purdy – she was there and I can confirm that it was only makeup in MONSTER) but for me this movie doesn’t cut it. The characters don’t have much depth, too much of the story is told through awkward dialogue or news reports instead of showing it, the scenes don’t feel very real and I don’t think it does a very good job of communicating what exactly was going on.
That last one is partly because of the budget, because what made those days so awe inspiring was the sheer size of the protest. Without a ton of money it’s hard to show how epic it was. In the movie it mostly looks like a small group crowding up maybe half a block. The only time you can see how big it is is when they cut to actual documentary footage, but that’s always a little offputting because it instantly feels so much more real than the rest of the movie and emphasizes how fake the re-enactments are. There are a whole lot of scenes in huge crowds but where you can clearly hear the main characters talk to each other with minimal background noise. It just feels artificial.
The outsourced review compared it to CRASH, but that’s not an accurate comparison. There is no fucking of leg wounds or rubbing nipples against airplanes or anything like that. Or if they’re talking about the Paul Haggis one I don’t agree with that either. This is neither as hilariously ludicrous as CRASH’s worst moments or as well directed and acted as CRASH’s best moments. The only similarity is that it follows various characters on different sides of the conflict and eventually some of their stories intersect. You’ve got Ray Liotta as the in-over-his-head mayor (not named Paul Schell like the genuine article), Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Carpenter and Andre 3000 Benjamin as activists, Woody Harrelson and Channing Tatum as cops. Inside the WTO there’s a couple recognizable faces trying to get their issues to the table, including Rade Sherbedzija (the costume shop owner from EYES WIDE SHUT) and Isaach De Bankole (the ice cream man from GHOST DOG!).
The style of the movie is Paul Greengrass, handheld documentary kind of look. That’s a good way to do a movie on a budget but directors don’t seem to consider how the style can backfire. If the camerawork is “real” shouldn’t the acting and dialogue be more real than this? Should we really have the characters explaining the story to the audience, like “Six months of preparation. Here we go” or “Welcome to the first internet protest!”? The “real” look clashes with the Hollywood feel of some of the writing, like giving Henderson a back story about his brother who was killed in a previous protest. And none of the characters end up with enough screen time to really have a strong story. Theron especially seems wasted playing half of her role in a hospital bed.
The most interesting character is actually one of the few establishment figures, the mayor. Both in the movie and in real life I kind of felt sorry for that guy. He thought he had this big coup bringing the WTO to the city, and it turned into a notorious disaster that ended his career. He made a genuine but naive attempt to honor Seattle’s way of life by not squelching the protest, but it was worse than he expected and then pressure started coming from the (American-accented) governor and the White House to clamp down. So he goes in the opposite direction, complete overkill, and makes the problem way worse. But he can’t seem to accept the fact that he’s now The Man. He keeps mentioning to the press that he protested Vietnam. Hey come on guys, I’m one of the good guys, I swear.
A guy in that position is so much more interesting than protesters that I started to wonder why the movie wasn’t just about him. Alot of what happens is never shown, you just hear somebody telling the mayor that it happened, so maybe they should’ve saved money and gone in a more minimalistic theatrical kind of approach. You see the whole thing from the perspective of this poor bastard hiding out in a building somewhere trying to make the right decisions. But I guess that wouldn’t have had the messages Townsend wanted to get across.
* * *
Let me give some of that local perspective that Seattle Weekly couldn’t give. I had my own minor brush with the protests so I have an idea what they were like. I’m a left winger but not an activist. I was living outside of town and I wasn’t about to go to the protest because I didn’t know what the fuck a WTO was. I watched the news on the first day and saw those anarchist kids smashing some windows, which was portrayed as violence and a legitimate reason to spray tear gas and shoot rubber bullets at all the thousands of other people. I was suspicious because I’d seen kids get beat up by cops before and then watched them call it a riot on TV. But I wasn’t there, I was just guessing.
Then the next day they declared a “No Protest Zone.” Basically there was a small square where you were allowed to still have the first amendment, and the rest of downtown you would be arrested if you had a sign or accidentally chanted or played a drum or something. During the Bush years this became a regular part of protests. If Bush comes into town they square off a little cage of fence where you’re allowed to protest out of the sight of Bush and the media, and the rest is off limits. I’ve heard people credit Bush’s people for starting this technique but this is one thing you can’t pin on him. They already did it for Clinton when he came to town for WTO.
Anyway, I am one of those guys who believes in freedom and America and what not, so when I heard about the No Protest Zone (which is not explained in the movie) is when I decided to go downtown and see what was going on with my own eyes. When I got there it was pretty surreal. Quiet, not alot of activity, but lines of militarized riot cops blocking off numerous streets, standing there like stormtroopers under the Christmas lights.
In the afternoon I was talking to some friends on the corner when a relatively small group of marchers burst out of the Pike Place Market stairway, coming back downtown after a labor rally. These were the friendliest, happiest group of protesters you ever saw. Hippies, union members identified by their jackets, people in turtle costumes like Andre 3000 wears in the movie, and everybody was dancing and chanting to the beat of a percussion band. They were gesturing for innocent passersby like ourselves to join them. My friends and I looked at each other and shrugged. Why not? I like drums. I like turtles. I don’t like the priorities of global capitalism taking precedence over our local beliefs or whatever.
So we marched for a little bit and it was pretty uplifting and then as we came around the corner we saw another crowd of marchers coming from a different direction. Two relatively small groups combining to form one larger one! What poetry! As the crowds merged we cheered. But I remember seeing fear on the faces of the other crowd. They were not happy to see us and were gesturing back in the direction they came from, like “No– you don’t understand…”
And then I noticed the battalion of riot cops behind them. They were firing concussion grenades into the air, basically like a firework that makes a loud bang to scare and disorient people. There were white clouds wafting around – this was the CS gas I believe. Even nowhere near the clouds your eyes and nasal passages began to burn. They had some sort of tank-like vehicle, and a loudspeaker repeatedly announcing that everyone must disperse immediately or be arrested.
I gotta be honest, the whole thing pissed me off, but my friends were more interested in getting away from tear gas and pepper spray than in fighting the man. Which was not a bad idea, so I went with them. This was not our fight. Sorry, turtles.
The problem we found then was that dispersing was easier-said-over-a-loudspeaker-than-done. Every direction we went there were more cops, more chemical clouds, and lines of National Guard. And it’s hard to see when you keep rubbing your eyes. The Guard are mentioned in the movie but, as far as I noticed, never shown. In the media they were always referred to as “unarmed National Guard,” although in reality they each held a large wooden bat that in my opinion would’ve hurt if they chose to use it on you.
I went up to a line of them who, obviously, would not let me pass. I asked them which direction to go. “We’re trying to disperse, but every way we go is blocked.” They not only wouldn’t answer, they wouldn’t look at me. I’m sure that was what they were told to do to avoid being tricked or distracted by the wily anarchists of Eugene, Oregon. I don’t think I ever heard anything about National Guard getting out of line, so good for them. But let’s just say it was not comforting to have them there. I did not feel it was people they were guarding.
We eventually found an unguarded alley to sneak out through and got the hell out of there. But it was sobering to be caught in the middle of this very minor skirmish in the several days of cop vs. protester battles. Alot of people have a kneejerk reaction against any protest, assuming whoever does it is a crazy extremist or is just trying to show off or something. If you think I should be beaten, gassed and arrested for the crime of stupidly joining a hippie conga line for a few minutes then so be it, I will accept your wise judgment. What disturbed me though was seeing elderly people bent over coughing at the bus stops. Look, I don’t agree with some stupid kids breaking windows and spraypainting shit. But is that worth pepper spraying an old lady waiting for the bus out of town? I’m against it.
The movie tries to address this issue with Charlize Theron’s character. She doesn’t know anything about the protests except that her husband (Harrelson) is a cop and has to work overtime. She works downtown but when she’s sent home she gets caught in the crossfire. To get around the crowd she tries to cut down an alley, where she sees protesters running out of a cloud of tear gas, gas-masked cops chasing after them. I was surprised how much this reminded me of actually being there (even if Charlize’s alley was in another country).
But here’s the thing (SPOILER)… her character is pregnant. That’s the kind of thing that spooked me when I was in the middle of that, thinking of how many random pregnant women or asthmatic elderly people might’ve been stuck there. But in the movie (seriously, SPOILER) a cop runs up and hits her in the belly with his club, and she loses the baby. The audience gasped. It hurt to look at. I have no doubt that something like this could happen. But on the other hand… it didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. My blood still boils at some of the fucked up shit some cops did. The only officer fired for excessive force during the protests was a King County Sheriff’s Deputy named John Vanderwalker. He saw two young women in a parked car videotaping. He knocked on their window and when they cracked it he said “Tape this, bitch!” and sprayed pepper spray into their car. A separate videotape showed a medic, clearly labelled with a red cross armband and holding a first aid kit, crouching on a sidewalk. Vanderwalker ran up behind her and kicked her in the back. He denied that it was him in the video but they were able to enlarge the image and read the name on his helmet, so he was fired. The next year an arbitrator found that it could not be proven that he had lied, because he might have forgot that he ran up and kicked a lady in the back for no reason, so he was reinstated with back pay. He got a free vacation out of it.
That’s the one guy they tried to hold accountable, and that’s just the stuff he did on tape. Who knows what else he forgot about doing? But if he had hit a pregnant lady and caused her to miscarry, well, I think we would know about that. So to attribute something that horrible to a police officer seems like cheating.
I think that’s the biggest problem with the movie in getting its message across. There’s alot of truth in the movie, but by mixing it with typical movie phoniness you kind of dilute it. For example:
* They mention that the police tried to get the fire department to spray the protesters with firehoses, and they refused. That’s true (it’s verified in the REPORT OF THE WTO ACCOUNTABILITY REVIEW COMMITTEE SEATTLE CITY COUNCIL) but will people who don’t know that believe it? I mean, it sounds pretty over-the-top, like clubbing a pregnant lady.
* There’s a scene where an anarchist breaks a store window and Henderson and other protesters try to stop him. He thinks vandalism doesn’t constitute violence, they try to convince him it’s still giving the media exactly the images they need to make the whole demonstration useless. This kind of thing really did happen, but it seems phony when it turns into Rodriguez melodramatically calling Henderson a coward, and when the anarchist is played by Joshua Jackson of DAWSON’S CREEK.
* They also have a subplot about a local news reporter having her eyes opened over the course of her coverage. I felt like this really did happen as I saw local reporters trying to smear the whole protest because one dumbass vandalizing the Nike store was wearing Nikes, but eventually as the police started firing tear gas into bars on Capitol Hill they started to become more sympathetic toward the people getting beat up and visibly upset about what was going on. But in the movie they have her join the protest on live TV when she’s supposed to be reporting from a press conference. Do you really have to manufacture stick-it-to-the-man moments when you’re telling the story of a real one?
* It is also true that there were undercover police pretending to be protesters as Channing Tatum’s character does. I’m not sure if any of them got beat up by other cops, but I’ll let that one go. I liked what they did with his character so I hope people don’t think it’s just made up.
To me it seemed like the most crucial turning point was Capitol Hill. The mayor had declared a curfew, and the police had forced a small group of lingering protesters out of downtown and up the hill. Capitol Hill is a neighborhood with alot of young people, hipsters, gays, artists, punks. There are many bars and restaraunts and a lively night life. It’s where Sir Mix-a-Lot was talking about in that old song “Posse On Broadway.” He wasn’t lying, there’s always a long line for burgers at Dick’s even late into the night.
The movie shows a little bit of what a bad situation the cops were in.
They were working over time, not getting breaks, not getting enough water, pissing in bottles, getting piss bottles thrown at them. What it doesn’t mention is that most of them were from out of town. There weren’t enough Seattle police for the job so officers were shipped in from all over the state. So you have these tired, pissed off cops chasing protesters up the hill… I wonder if they even knew where they were? Did they know they had left the “No Protest Zone”? Did they know that the crowds up here were not protesting anything? What did they expect to happen when they started spraying and hitting regular apolitical people and telling them to “disperse” from their own neighborhood?
That night was the most out of control because the police found themselves battling not with WTO protesters, but with Capitol Hill residents pissed off that their businesses and hangouts were being tear gassed. The police wouldn’t leave, so the locals wouldn’t go inside. After being mistaken for protesters many residents went ahead and became protesters, gathering outside the local police headquarters. A city council member showed up and tried to negotiate between the locals and the police. The news crews stopped spreading hearsay about protesters being seen with molotov cocktails and started interviewing various bloodied people about all the horrible things that happened to them. And they kept showing the video of Vanderwalker kicking the medic.
BATTLE IN SEATTLE tries to show some of the chaos that night, but without really explaining the context. And then two of the leads are involved in a pretty ludicrous foot chase. But the thing I felt was really missing was the next morning. After having the police do nothing was a failure, and having the police beat the hell out of everybody was even worse, they tried a new approach. The stormtrooper outfits were put away and protests were chaperoned by un-armored bike police. Suddenly everybody calmed down and there were no more scuffles. This is the approach they’ve used for most political protests since then, with much success. Both Niketown and the old ladies at bus stops have gone relatively unscathed.
I can’t expect Townsend to tell the story I want him to, but to me that was the inspirational part of WTO. That was what showed me that people could take a stand and make a difference. Not activists but regular people who could’ve gone inside to safety but felt the need to stand in the way of an injustice in their neighborhood. And it did force the city to change their tactics. It made a difference.
As for the WTO protests? Well, despite what the trailer for BATTLE IN SEATTLE tells you it is debatable how much effect they had on anything. But in the movie’s one truly great moment it acknowledges this. Hundreds of protesters, including the main characters, are in jail. Henderson’s character is especially glum because he’s on his third strike, and he thinks they’ve failed. But Andre Benjamin’s Django tries to cheer him up.
“Yesterday those people didn’t even know what the WTO was,” he says. “But today…”
And you’re thinking oh come on Stuart Townsend. Let’s not overstate this.
“…well, they still don’t know what it is. But at least they know it’s bad!”
I didn’t mention Benjamin before because I was saving the best for last. He’s definitely the highlight of the movie. As the guy who tries to keep morale high among protesters he gets all the funny lines and few of the self righteous ones. It’s also nice to see a major rap star wearing a cardboard turtle costume. You don’t see enough of that.
I should also single out Martin Henderson. When I saw him on stage I realized “Holy shit, that’s the guy from TORQUE!” (and he was standing next to the stars of THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, AEON FLUX, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE – quite a collection). I do not mean that as an insult because to be totally and completely honest I enjoyed the hell out of TORQUE. But he was not very good in it. In this one he is good and I think we will be seeing more of him.
* * *
Like most political movies it’s hard to see this one converting many people. I don’t think those people who instinctively hate protesters will have their eyes opened too wide. In fact, I’m not sure some people are even going to understand what the World Trade Organization is (it’s mostly explained in an opening montage like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK).
But I do truly believe that Townsend’s heart is in the right place, so I’m glad he was able to show it in Seattle without derisive laughter (except during a climactic scene where a cop tracks down the protester he beat up and apologizes to him – I guess we weren’t ready to believe that one). It kind of reminded me of Emilio Estevez’s movie BOBBY, but it wasn’t as laugh-out-loud corny as that one, and Townsend didn’t even cast himself in the movie. So it’s not THAT embarrassing.
My apologies for the negative review, and I look forward to the intelligent and courteous political discussion that will take place in the talkback.
[Developer Note: This was published at AICN after the version published at GeoCities. This version retains the latter’s introduction.]
Eventually posted at Ain’t-It-Cool News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/36912