Despite what you’re thinking, “Battle in Seattle” isn’t a grunge showdown.
The title refers to five days of mayhem and destruction that took place in Seattle in 1999 when thousands of protesters blocked the city in an effort to suspend World Trade Organization talks. A relatively forgotten event, it is nevertheless a gold mine of dramatic potential, and Stuart Townsend, yet another actor turned writer-director, has been quick to take advantage.
“Battle in Seattle” follows the evolution of the protests from a well-regulated, peaceful affair to a series of frighteningly violent clashes between civilians and the police. Documentary footage is mixed in, underscoring the authenticity of the events and firmly rooting fictional representations within an indisputable historic reality. The personal appeal is increased through a myriad of characters who are either directly involved in, or fatally affected by, the events depicted.
One of the key achievements of this film is its overwhelming portrayal of pandemonium. The jerky, shaky camera appears to mimic the movements of a scared, disoriented protester. Special attention is paid to close-ups of police violence, set against a background permeated by constant screams, rubber bullets and tear gas.
This film is not all punches and shots, however. It is a heavy-handed and unavoidably depressing drama. Peppered with tearjerking moments, the film plays the human factor for all its worth, embedding the viewer in the disastrous impact the protests have on real people.
The biggest problem with the film’s attempt at empathy is not that “Crash” already went there, but its weakness at creating believable characters. “Battle” falters precisely where it should be strongest: in fleshing out its leading men and women and taking them beyond the level of sketchily drawn stock characters. Enter Jay (Martin Henderson), the valiant leader of the protest, Lou (Michelle Rodriguez), the proverbial tough girl, followed by the unshakable optimist Django (André “André 3000” Benjamin, of Outkast fame) and the initially conflicted character — the young lawyer Sam (Jennifer Carpenter). There is also a subgroup of minor characters: a more-moral-than-most Seattle policeman (Woody Harrelson), his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron), a conscientious TV reporter (Connie Nielsen), a Doctors without Borders representative (Rade Sherbedzija) and a delegate from a poor African state (Isaach de Bankole). With such a medley of personages, it is hardly a surprise that not a single story is sufficiently developed and not a single character experiences meaningful growth. Instead, the viewer is presented with painfully artificial people whose main function is either to make a crucial plot point or to stand in for a specific type of generic personality.
One notable exception is Ray Liotta’s city mayor, whom the movie follows through a personal crisis of sorts as he struggles with his own moral misconceptions and is forced to succumb to pressure from those “higher up.” He is set apart as the “man on the other side of the barrier,” forced to deal with the complicated politics of the issue. And, as ironic as it is given the intent of the movie, his character ends up the easiest to sympathize with, despite the outcome of his decisions.
One soldier doesn’t win a battle, though. In this case, a straightforward documentary might’ve had a better chance of emerging victorious.