A 'Battle In Seattle,' Staged With Politics In Mind

Andre Benjamin in a turtle costume i i

Voice of the turtle: Django (Andre "3000" Benjamin) gives riot police a piece of his mind. Ed Araquel/Redwood Palms Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Ed Araquel/Redwood Palms Pictures
Andre Benjamin in a turtle costume

Voice of the turtle: Django (Andre "3000" Benjamin) gives riot police a piece of his mind.

Ed Araquel/Redwood Palms Pictures

Battle in Seattle

  • Director: Stuart Townsend
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 100 minutes

Rated R; bloody street violence, rapacious global capitalism and the odd bit of nudity.

Riot police march in street i i

Shades of 1999: Dale (Woody Harrelson, in sunglasses) loses his cool when his nonprotesting wife gets caught in a riot. Ed Araquel/Redwood Palms Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Ed Araquel/Redwood Palms Pictures
Riot police march in street

Shades of 1999: Dale (Woody Harrelson, in sunglasses) loses his cool when his nonprotesting wife gets caught in a riot.

Ed Araquel/Redwood Palms Pictures

It's based on events that occurred barely a decade ago, but Battle in Seattle echoes a much older cinematic tradition. Maneuvering its small-scale characters through a big-issue scenario, the film plays like an updated version of one of those Warner Brothers social melodramas from the '30s. The results are often rousing — but sometimes glib or stilted, too.

The movie fictionalizes the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization's "Millennium Meeting" in Seattle, and politics precede the action: Under the opening credits, writer-director Stuart Townsend provides a quick tutorial on how the WTO evolved.

Then the filmmaker, an Irish-bred actor making his first feature, introduces his four central protesters. They're dangling from a construction crane, attempting to unfurl an anti-WTO banner.

Jay (Martin Henderson) is the leader who must hold back, because he's already been arrested too many times. Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) is an animal-rights activist who could fall in love with Jay, but is emotionally leery. Sam (Jennifer Carpenter) is a lawyer who's tempted to withdraw after the demonstrations turn violent. And Django (Outkast's Andre "3000" Benjamin) is a turtle-loving pacifist so cheerful he leads a "Don't Worry, Be Happy" sing-along while in police custody.

On the other side are the mayor (Ray Liotta) and a lot of policemen, essentially embodied by one man: tender-hearted roughneck Dale (Woody Harrelson). Somewhere in the middle are a TV reporter (Connie Nielsen) improbably radicalized by the events, a doctor (Rade Serbedzija) crusading to bring cheaper medicines to the world's poor, and an apolitical department-store clerk who's joyously pregnant. (This last is Ella, Dale's wife, played by Charlize Theron, Townsend's girlfriend.)

Things go wrong quickly, as police overreact to nonviolent protesters, who are then upstaged by window-smashing anarchists. The movie shows how the street combat distracts from the altruistic efforts of some inside the conference, but it devotes more time to a lurid development: Lost in a tear-gas fog, Ella is clubbed by police. Enraged, Dale takes revenge not on his cohorts, but on one of the four crane-danglers.

The film mixes dramatic scenes shot in Seattle and Vancouver with documentary footage from '99. The blend is generally effective, vividly evoking both the events and the emotions that fueled them. But the dialogue is less convincing, especially when Townsend reaches for the sort of stagy banter that characterizes classic Hollywood fare.

The director also shows an old-fashioned disregard for plausibility: Characters make emotional U-turns at just the right moment, and Seattle's jail cells seem designed expressly to advance communication between the people who most need to reach out to each other. Django, although engagingly portrayed by Benjamin, is another anachronism. He's so blithe a helpmate that he could have danced out of a Shirley Temple picture.

Despite such missteps, the movie is notable as one of the few recent American movies (aside from last year's flurry of Iraq-themed box-office flops) to explore political themes. And while it's hardly an even-handed docudrama, Battle in Seattle does strive for real-world complexity. That's why it could, rather than merely polarizing audiences, actually serve as a conversation starter.

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