Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Kingdom

The opening sequence of The Kingdom (2007) offers a newsreel-style history of Saudi Arabia from its founding in 1932 to the present. In briefly shown images, some narrated by the voices of recognizable American news broadcasters, we see the major figures and events in Saudi history. The focus is mainly the nation's relationship with the West. Specifically emphasized are the paradoxes of the Saudi kingdom: it was organized by tribesmen hostile to the west, but the discovery of oil in 1933 made an alliance with the Kingdom essential for the West. U. S. support for Israel complicated Saudi relations with the West. When the United States cemented its alliance with the Kingdom by offering half a million troops, the Osama Bin Laden was forced out, along with his followers. At the end of this introductory sequence, a rapid series of images show major terrorist events of the last decade or so. The last image is of a jetliner approaching the New York Twin Towers on the fateful day on September 2001. A message on the screen reminds us that fifteen of the nineteen terrorists that day were Saudis. The opening sequence emphasizes the many contradictions of U. S./Saudi relations. The point suggested here is that the nature of the West's involvement in the Kingdom was at least one factor leading to the attack on the Twin Towers and, presumably, the current state of affairs regarding Iraq, Iran, Al Qaeda, and Afghanistan. We are thus prepared for a film that investigates the causes of those events, along with the ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions of U. S. relations with the Kingdom. Unfortunately this opening is the most incisive and interesting element of the film.

Directed by Peter Berg, The Kingdom concerns a fictional terrorist attack against Americans living in Saudi Arabia. Terrorists enter an American compound, shoot down Americans standing in their front yards, then shoot down members of a crowd at a softball game. A man dressed in what appears to be standard Saudi military garb blows himself up. As ambulances and emergency personnel gather to treat the wounded, a truck bomb explodes, two hundred die.

Although Saudi policy forbids the presence of American agents in the Kingdom, in this case a small team of F. B. I agents is permitted to investigate the attacks. They are allowed five days for their investigations. They are interested in going to Saudi Arabia partially out of a desire for revenge—a fellow agent died in the attacks. A female agent, Janet Mayes, played by Jennifer Garner, weeps when she hears of his death. Another agent, Ronald Fleury, played by Jamie Foxx, leans down and whispers something to her—she stops weeping. One of the points of the film is the argument that Saudi Arabia on the one hand appears to be an American ally and on the other hand harbors, if not funds, terrorists. The attacks in this film are carried out by men wearing standard Saudi military uniforms, a fact suggesting that Saudis, perhaps even members of the Saudi military, were involved in the attacks.

The Kingdom builds on the notion that Saudi Arabia has managed to survive by supporting both American interests and forces that oppose American interests. This particular issue has occasionally been debated in the media and by politicians, but for the most part it has been avoided. The film acknowledges the issue but for the most part avoids it as well.

The Kingdom uses Saudi Arabia as a backdrop for a standard suspense story about American agents attempting to discover the perpetrators of the attacks. It is told clearly from an American perspective, in a form that American audiences would find comfortable. It does not, for the most part, except in the opening sequence, question the American role in Saudi Arabia but instead considers the possibility that Saudi Arabia supports or at the least acquiesces to the presence of terrorists within its borders.

What the film uses most clearly is the theme of cultural contrasts. Ronald Fleury in particular is portrayed as an ambitious agent who goes on the mission to Saudi Arabia only because he is assigned to it. Only gradually, as he learns more about Saudi culture and the Saudi people, does he develop a personal interest in and commitment to the mission. As a parallel to Fleury, a Saudi police sergeant, Colonel Faris Al Ghazi, is assigned, against his will, to assist the American agents. They don't like him, and he doesn't want to assist them. In the course of the film, Al Ghazi comes to respect and like the Americans. Gradually they come to like and respect him.

In the climactic scene of the film one of the American agents is kidnapped by the terrorists responsible for the attacks. The Saudi sergeant and the American agents work together to find and rescue the kidnapped man. They accidentally run across the hideout of the terrorists, whom they kill in a gun battle. The real point of the film is how people from different cultures come to discover what they share in common, and this is the basis of friendship. Unfortunately, the Saudi sergeant dies at the end of the film. Contrasted against the friendship the Americans share with him is the statement of the dying terrorist leader to his grandson that eventually all the Americans will be killed. The film makes a point of letting us know that these same words were what agent Fleury said to agent Mayes at the start of the film to comfort her: "we are going to kill them all." The film suggests the deep hostilities that underlie the relationship between Saudi and American culture, and the difficulty of bridging them. It suggests as well that hatred for the West is passed down from one generation to the next. Without delving into the causes of that hostility, The Kingdom argues in a superficial and fundamentally platitudinous way for mutual understanding. It thus avoids more difficult issues.

The Kingdom is a police drama set in Saudi Arabia. It is not a film in the same class as Syriana or Munich.

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