We bring a lot of baggage with us into movies: preconceptions about certain actors, ideas about the kinds of events depicted. In the case of The Kingdom, we’ve got certain expectations regarding, say, Jennifer Garner’s tough-gal persona, thanks to her stint on Alias, and certain expectations regarding what should be done about Middle Eastern terrorists who kill Americans, and certain expectations about how big, loud, Hollywood action movies will deal with throwing these things together.
And sure enough, comes a moment late in The Kingdom when Garner (Catch and Release, 13 Going on 30), playing an FBI forensics expert investigating a devastating bombing against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia, has a confrontation with a bad brown guy that ends rather badly for him. And the crowd with whom I saw this film — which consisted of a small clutch of critics surrounded by regular, nonprofessional moviegoers who’d been treated to a free sneak preview of the movie — whooped and hollared their delight. “That’s an Oscar right there!” one woman yelled, meaning, I suppose, that one bad-ass American chick beating the crap out of a foreign villain must surely be a pinnacle of cinematic achievement for the year.
I sighed, and thought: This is why we’re doomed. People really and truly get off on this stuff. It’s one thing to feel a certain sense of catharsis from seeing a movie bad guy get what’s coming to him, but something else entirely to be cheering out loud for an act of desperate, kill-or-be-killed, matter-of-immediate-life-or-death violence that is not presented in any way meant to titillate or thrill — that is riveting, actually, for its expediency and necessity but doesn’t linger to drool over the act — and that is so very intimately coupled to very real dangers of the world outside the movies.
But I think — I hope — that director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown), working from a script by first-timer Matthew Michael Carnahan, had this all in mind from the beginning, knew how audiences would react to his hot-button story and was setting them up for a little bit of a smackdown. Because there’s a little metaphoric twist of the knife right at the end of the film that suggests that we might want to reconsider whatever visceral pleasure we might have taken in seeing an enemy suffer. It’s not a “surprise” ending, and I haven’t spoiled anything for you by letting you know about it — sometimes merely being aware that a twist is coming is enough to ruin a movie even if you don’t know what the twist consists of, but this is not one of those instances. What happens at the end of The Kingdom is the resolution of a little mystery that’s been running through the story since its beginning, and it’s nothing you can guess, but it floored me with its simple, and in retrospect, obvious wisdom and sly cunning: it’s a bit of shaming, a stripped-down, no-nonsense reality alarm about cycles of hate and violence that we must be fully cognizant of if we’re ever to break them.
And that most certainly is directed at the audience, because the characters we’ve come to care about and root for are never even aware of it: they are complicit in the attitudes that, in the end, The Kingdom doesn’t so much condemn as merely point out, which is more than enough, for they are attitudes that often go entirely unacknowledged, they’re so much a part of our identity as a culture. (And as the movie indicates, part of everyone’s culture.) And we like these characters instantly because we share their rage: this FBI team — Garner’s forensics examiner; the intelligence analyst played by Jason Bateman (Smokin’ Aces, The Break-Up); Chris Cooper’s (Breach, Syriana) explosives expert; and the team leader played by Jamie Foxx (Miami Vice, Jarhead) — loses one of their own in their horrific multiple shootings and bombings at the Riyadh housing complex of an American oil company. (Many children are also among the dead.) And then the U.S. government plays politics with the situation, refuses to allow the FBI to travel to Saudi Arabia to investigate, even though the agency has jurisdiction, apparently, wherever Americans are attacked. So the team sneaks off to the Middle East, where they encounter more politicking from local princes and from their own ambassador (Jeremy Piven [Smokin’ Aces, Cars], in fine weaselly form). It’s a law-enforcement clusterfuck, with the agents thwarted at every turn. And it’s entirely frustrating — the desire to kick some ass just to get things moving seems like an understandable response.
“It’s a bit like Mars,” Cooper’s character says about Saudi Arabia and its culture, which is so alien to the Americans… and often shocking to the audience: Berg drops in strange little visual crumbs, almost sci-fi-esque, of men stopped on the side of the road to pray beside their cars, of hidden computer cafes with PCs piled like cordwood against a wall, of the concealment of women. It’s a bit like the Old West, too (most of the Riyadh scenes were, in fact, shot in the Arizona desert), except everyone’s got armored SUVs and shoulder-launched missiles. The gulf between cultures might seem almost unbridgable, if not for the plain fact that it is not when even a smidgen of effort is expended. And so we have the FBI team’s liaison, Saudi Colonel Al Ghazi (Israeli actor Ashraf Barhom, who just about steals the movie from a cast of scene-stealers), with whom they create a tentative relationship based, at first, on the wish to bring murderers to justice, and later on a much greater sense of shared humanity.
The brilliance of The Kingdom is there. In the midst of an urgent, hard-edged story of criminal investigation — think CSI: Riyadh — and even after an intense final act jammed with enough action for three movies, that’s what we’re left with: We’re all human, and we’re all driven by the same things… including, sometimes, purely atavistic tribalism. And that it’s time to take a step back, take a deep breath, and recognize that.