The Kingdom (review)

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Tribal Cultures

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.

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Fri, Sep 28, 2007 7:25am

I’m so relieved by this review. From the first previews of this movie that I saw, I was afraid it was going to be an Arab/middle eastern exploitation film, but with the cast, I hoped there was a chance it treated Arabs and Muslims with respect. It sounds from your review that this is true. Thanks.

Fri, Sep 28, 2007 1:02pm

I felt the exact same way about this film and I had expected most critics to jump at the sight of a very well made action thriller with some extra substance and relevance. But so far the reviewers seem to be preferring Transformers or something. It’s as if there’s no middle ground; you’re a dumb popcorn flick or Syriana. So many, on Rotten Tomatoes at least, seem to have missed completely that undercurrent; the film using the typical emotional drive of the action thriller very effectively on its own terms and also as the sting in the tail. It gave the whole thing an uneasiness that has kept me pondering it ever since.

Sun, Sep 30, 2007 4:25pm

Do you ever find it disturbing that more people comment on your reviews of crapfests like RE:3 as opposed to actual thought provoking films such as this one? Personally, i was not overly thrilled with “The Kingdom”, but it is still very much worth discussing, and I agree with many of your points. When it comes to Resident Evil, can’t we just all agree zombies were killed, and tired plot devices were overused?

Sun, Sep 30, 2007 5:47pm

The comment earlier about how critics demand movies either be Syriana or Transformers is actually kind of fascinating to me, as this movie (and the Bourne movies, come to think of it) straddle the line very carefully. I guess the example of how to do this kind of movie wrong is Patriot Games, which is ridiculously bad. That was the first Tom Clancy movie I’d ever seen, I haven’t seen one since.

But yeah, it’s not an easy trick to pull off by any means, being a serious popcorn flick. I have to admit, this Peter Berg guy is looking more and more like one of the most underrated directors of our times.

Sun, Sep 30, 2007 8:01pm

Do you ever find it disturbing that more people comment on your reviews of crapfests like RE:3 as opposed to actual thought provoking films such as this one?

Disturb me? No more so than anything else that highlights how dumbed down our culture is. More people will see crap like RE3 than will see good stuff like *The Kingdom.*

People are dumb. Yeah, this bothers me, but it doesn’t surprise me.

Sun, Sep 30, 2007 10:15pm

Hey now, come on, I enjoyed RE:E (last weekend) and The Kingdom, AND for that matter In the Valley of Elah. I daresay I’m not the only one around with the ability to dig movies on several levels. :P

Of course, the theater I saw these in had three showings of Game Plan, all of which seemed to have plenty of audience going in. Yet we’re not getting Eastern Promises here at all. So never fear, “dumb” is still in fashion.

Mon, Oct 01, 2007 12:27am

Peter Berg definitely has talent. I had a huge crush on him when he was on Chicago Hope. Glad that he is directing good stuff. I plan to see this film this week.

Mon, Oct 01, 2007 11:01am

enjoyed RE:E (last weekend) and The Kingdom, AND for that matter In the Valley of Elah. I daresay I’m not the only one around with the ability to dig movies on several levels.

Of course you aren’t. Still, do you honestly think that most of the people who went to see RE:E will also see *In the Valley of Elah*?

Mon, Oct 01, 2007 2:47pm

I saw this movie about 2 months ago at a pre-screening and the only way I could describe the ending was that it had a sense of foreboding to it.

I too was absolutely blown away by Ashraf Barhom and his Saudi Colonel Al Ghazi. He absolutely shows-up Jamie Fox through his quite passion and intensity. And while most of the Arab characters helping the FIB team seemed to be more learning from them than equals helping to investigate the bombing it was refreshing to see these characters handled in a much more respectful real manner than we’re used to.

It was a smart movie even if it couldn’t stop itself from that last action piece.

rod /
Tue, Oct 02, 2007 5:30pm

I hadn’t put this on my list b/c, as others opined already, I feared it would be to much of a chest thumping, jingoistic take on the core plot.

As a member of the Canadian audience segment, we have an often complicated relationship with movies like this; on one hand were quick to look for evidence of American-isms (the chest thumping), so that we can re-assure ourselves that we are in fact different, in some way, and secure in our own National Identity; on the other hand, we share many of the same fears and misconceptions about the middle east, the war on terror, and so on.

In any event – I’m putting this film back on my list – thanks for a great review.

noor al ayn
noor al ayn
Fri, Oct 05, 2007 12:28am

RE: Movie elitism
Just because people go to see really stupid movies doesn’t mean that they are really stupid. It is reasonable to look for entertainment in zombie movies and important discussions about the Middle East in documentaries, books, and other non-entertaining media. شكرا.

Fri, Oct 05, 2007 4:58pm

Just because people go to see really stupid movies doesn’t mean that they are really stupid.

No. It just means they’re willing to pretend to be really stupid, for reasons that elude me, and always will.

Fri, Oct 05, 2007 6:42pm

You know, I recently heard an interview on NPR with Peter Berg where he said the original ending as written by Carnahan had the entire main cast being killed, and it was changed to make the movie more commercial.

I can’t help thinking that that really dumbed the movie down. It’s depressing.

Fri, Oct 05, 2007 7:37pm

The movie certainly is NOT dumb, but yeah, that ending would have been a lot less Hollywood. But the ending we actually got still has some zing to it.

Fri, Oct 05, 2007 9:03pm

I actually don’t think that ending is better. In the original ending, they just lose, that’s it. In the new one, the “good guys” win and still lose, which is far more devastating, as it completely precludes the possibility of any victory.