Battle in Seattle (review)

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Political Passions

I’ve never been much impressed with Stuart Townsend (Trapped, Queen of the Damned) as an actor, but with Battle in Seattle, his first film as writer-director-producer, I have enormous new respect for him as an artist and storyteller. Battle in Seattle, just out on DVD in Region 1, interweaves actual news footage of the explosive 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in that city with fictional characters and fictional melodramas to tell a story that we see all too rarely these days: of the clash of corporate and political institutions with individuals striving to reduce their overarching might; of the political as personal; of conscience and passion as powers that can change the world.
Battle is an uncommonly passionate film itself, which is even more remarkable as it becomes clear how evenhanded Townsend is as a filmmaker. It’s obvious that he empathizes, for the most part, with the anticorporate stance of the protesters, but he doesn’t demonize, either, the exasperation of the Seattle mayor (Ray Liotta: Wild Hogs, Smokin’ Aces), desperate not to let his city become a combat zone even as he wildly underestimates the focused rage and clever planning of the protesters, and the frustration of the Seattle police, whom the mayor has ordered to hold back from possibly making the atmosphere more tense than it already is. Townsend doesn’t shy from the story of one Médecins sans Frontières doctor (Rade Serbedzija: The Eye, Snatch) whose important work helping the very poor and hurting people all over the world the protesters are fighting for is hindered by their shutdown of the WTO conference. And with the subplot about one apolitical woman (Charlize Theron: Hancock, Sleepwalking) who gets caught in the middle of the protests as they turn violent, there is no ignoring the damage all sides of the situation caused, even if inadvertently.

It does get a tad overly melodramatic at points — there’s some unlikeliness inherent in the relationship between two of the protest leaders (Martin Henderson [Flyboys, Bride & Prejudice] and Michelle Rodriguez [S.W.A.T., Blue Crush)], and how Theron’s story intersects with that of her husband, a riot cop (Woody Harrelson: Seven Pounds, Semi-Pro), also borders on the almost preposterous. But it’s forgivable, because in the grander scale, Townsend achieves something very special: this is a movie that harnesses the political rage of a generation that isn’t typically perceived as being political at all, with the underlying contention that it merely hasn’t been given voice in this way before.

It’s also an extraordinary example of how low-budget filmmaking can achieve big, effective results. The commentary track by Townsend and his editor, Fernando Villena, is a practically a film school class in doing things on the cheap. With only a reported $8 million to work with (pocket change to Hollywood films, which this is not), Townsend was forced to find ways to intercut real footage from the Seattle protests with his fictional story, and he explains lots of ways in which he did that and made it all work smoothly. He reveals how he got such an expansive story down to a crisp 98 minutes, and how much it hurt, sometimes, to cut shots he really loved (but he did it anyway). The DVD also includes a making-of featurette, among other bonus material, but the commentary track is highly enlightening on its own.

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