The Kingdom Film Essay

Universal’s idea is to show that however little viewers may hunger for movies about real terror — “Syriana,”“World Trade Center” and the Universal-distributed “Munich” and “United 93” found limited audiences for their downbeat, introspective takes — “The Kingdom” is different. It’s Middle Eastern politics with considerably less agonizing.

Cooked up four years ago by Mr. Berg; Michael Mann, who is a producer on the film; and the writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, “The Kingdom” is intended, in Mr. Carnahan’s words, to figure out “what would a murder investigation look like on Mars?”

The film follows a team of F.B.I. investigators, led by Jamie Foxx’s special agent Ronald Fleury, as they break political barriers and cultural taboos to investigate a bombing in Saudi Arabia not unlike the real-life attacks on Western residential compounds in Riyadh. Those occurred in May 2003, just as Mr. Berg began working on “The Kingdom.”

The film’s buddy is a Saudi police colonel played by Ashraf Barhom (“Paradise Now”). Its baddie is the bomb-building leader of an Islamic terror cell. The heroes’ modus operandi carries a whiff of “Rambo” and more than a touch of Mr. Mann’s trademark creation, the classic police show “Miami Vice.”

“We wanted to get guys who do procedural homicide work,” Mr. Mann explained in a telephone interview. “Two of those guys from the most oppositional backgrounds you can imagine, a Saudi cop and an African-American from Washington, would have more things in common, wanting to make bad things not happen, than all the cultural differences between them.”

Viewers conditioned by the self-doubting Israeli assassins of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” or the mind-bending complexities of Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana” may be startled by Mr. Berg’s more kinetic approach. Mr. Foxx’s character is perfectly willing to join a T-shirted Jennifer Garner and colleagues blasting their way through a trouble-infested Saudi neighborhood when the situation calls for it, local standards of female propriety notwithstanding.

A lack of filmmaking infrastructure and precedents ruled out shooting in Saudi Arabia. (Even “Lawrence of Arabia,” whose story spanned the Arabian desert, was largely shot in Morocco and Spain.) But Mr. Berg, 43, known to many for his portrayal of Dr. Billy Kronk on the series “Chicago Hope” and who is an executive producer on the television series “Friday Night Lights,” still pursued an air of authenticity.

With the help of a Saudi friend, he visited the kingdom, though he received no official support from the Saudi government, he said. The film was shot in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Washington and Arizona.

Initially several Saudis were retained to provide cultural advice, though one, Mr. Berg said, was distanced from the project after he developed a crush on Ms. Garner. Rich Klein of the Kissinger McLarty Associates consulting firm was a key political adviser.

“It became an exercise in honesty,” said Mr. Klein, a former State Department official who patrolled matters as small as the styling of the characters’ thobes — long-sleeved Saudi robes — or the likely back-story of an American diplomat played by Jeremy Piven.

The Saudi embassy’s press office in Washington did not respond to queries about the film.

In editing “The Kingdom,” Mr. Berg said he tinkered only slightly to keep the movie’s sympathies from straying into a zone that might seem unacceptably anti-Muslim or pro-Western. A softer scene, for instance, portrays a Muslim family praying. It went in and out of the movie several times, Mr. Berg said, but finally remained in, as necessary leavening.

“Everybody wants good,” Scott Stuber, the film’s other producer, said, speaking of the prayer scene. “It’s important for the good people to band together.”

Mr. Carnahan said he wrote drafts that were far more political and “nihilistic” than the finished film. And he fretted for a time that Mr. Berg’s insistence on honoring basic values of the buddy-cop genre might be “dumbing this movie down.” But, Mr. Carnahan said, he also came to believe that wrapping his notions about shared responsibility for the world’s ills “in conventional movie plot and conventional movie characters” was the way to reach people.

According to at least some independent evidence, that is beginning to occur. “The Kingdom” drew applause at a recent screening in Los Angeles, and a fair number of whoops when Saudi and American heroes scored on the movie villains.

And, not unlike “300” — an action film about ancient Spartans that earlier this year stirred unexpected debate about whether it was pro- or anti-President Bush — “The Kingdom” has already provoked some conflicting opinions about its real message.

“About time we had a pro-American movie,” started one thread among several chewing over the film’s sympathies on an IMDB.com message board recently. By contrast, Mr. Berg said, one of the traditionally dressed Muslim women at his London screening said she had read the movie as being “about the absurdity of military solutions” to Middle Eastern problems.

For Universal, which spent more than $70 million to make the film and will invest tens of millions more to market it, the task will be to keep such ferment from overwhelming its own message: that even the most divisive situations can be served by a popcorn movie, if done right.

“We now accept the fact that this is the dynamic of the world we live in,” said Marc Shmuger, Universal’s chairman, speaking of the attempt by Mr. Berg and company to plant a genuine entertainment on top of an all-too real problem.

“I love that,” he added. “I really respond to that.”

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The Kingdom is one of many movies in the ever growing “boy the Middle East sucks” genre that’s taken over theaters since it became clear to most of the country that the war on terror isn’t going to be easily won. But director Peter Berg’s film is more than just another face in the crowd. It’s by far the best of that depressing, sand-soaked group; mixing action and intentionally obvious political relevance together in a movie that’s part police procedural, part military action, and all smarts.

It starts with an over the opening credits recap of the Middle East’s history, and Saudi Arabia’s in particular. This could have been a boring recitation of historical facts, but Berg sets it to intense, action movie music and uses artistic, special effects driven animation to dole it out. As a result, a bunch of boring facts turns out to be the perfect introduction to the film, setting the stage not only for what’s about to happen in the movie but for what’s happening in the world right now. It instantly grounds the movie in reality, and when those facts are followed by a modern-day attack on a heavily guarded American housing compound in Saudi Arabia, you know this isn’t an episode of 24, this movie is real and the brutal terrorist attack you’ve just witnessed is something that could happen tomorrow, or might even be happening right now.

From then, the movie takes on frighteningly real dimensions. It’s as if you’re watching a film about an event that has actually happened, rather than a fictional creation about something that could. Whether or not the terrorist attack in The Kingdom is real becomes irrelevant, since you know you’re watching a movie about the realities of the Middle East situation, regardless of whether the film uses a fictional premise to illustrate it. The only thing I can think of to equate it to is Paul Greengrass’s brilliant September 11th recreation United 93, except instead of following tragically doomed passengers we follow an FBI team trying to hunt down the types of terrorists responsible for attacks like the one those brave victims suffered.

After the attack, the movie zeroes in on a team of FBI investigators lead by Jamie Foxx as Agent Ron Fleury. Because of the touchy situation in Saudi, the United States is only allowed to send in four agents in to figure out what happened. Foxx and his team arrive, are paired with a group of Saudi cops, given five days, and instantly barred from doing anything useful out of the Saudi government’s fear for their safety. They’ve stepped off the plane and into a world where nearly everyone wants them dead, and there’s not a single second in the movie where Berg allows you to forget that.

One of the few people in the country who doesn’t want them dead is Col. Al-Ghazi, a dedicated, high-ranking police official assigned to protect them. He’s played by mostly unknown actor Ashraf Barhom as a man dedicated to justice. Politics mean nothing to him, his life is devoted to the single-minded pursuit of punishing the kinds of people who would willingly murder innocent women and children. Fleury senses he’s a man that can be trusted and the real story of the film is the friendship that builds between them as they struggle to do their jobs. Ashraf’s performance as Al-Ghazi is nothing short of brilliant, he creates a character both sympathetic and dangerous, becoming a much needed face for more moderate Saudi people. The film’s worth seeing just for him, and he completely overshadows the otherwise solid performances of veteran actors like Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, and Chris Cooper. Keep an eye out for Ashraf’s name when it comes time for Best Supporting Oscars.

The Kingdom is gripping, intense, and ultimately utterly depressing. That makes sense, since that seems to sum up the current, modern political situation we’re mired in. Berg takes us straight into the heart of the Middle East problem and though the good guys may win the smaller battles in his movie the film builds so much complication around them that it’s clear there’s no real victory here or anywhere. Like all movies about the Middle East, The Kingdom is ultimately hopeless. That’s as it should be, since the reality of the region’s situation is that nobody has any answers. The action is intense and the performances are brilliant, but whether or not Fleury gets his man in the end doesn’t matter; the important thing is that by the time you leave the theater you’ll feel as if you’ve been there with them and maybe, just maybe have some idea of what we’re in for over there. It’s not pretty.

9 / 10 stars

Rating:4.5/5

Reviewed By: Josh Tyler

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