"Battle in Seattle": Writer-director Stuart Townsend makes an impressive debut with this exciting, well-cast, somewhat preachy docudrama about the protests against the World Trade Organization that closed downtown Seattle in 1999.
Atlanta had “Gone With the Wind.” New York City got “King Kong,” more than once. And now our Emerald City has “Battle in Seattle.”
At least it felt that momentous at the Seattle International Film Festival, where the movie had an emotional, celebrity-studded May 22 premiere at a crowded McCaw Hall. The audience, which behaved like cheerleaders applauding every local reference and progressive point, could not have been more engaged.
Will it ever play to such an appreciative audience again? What does it look like, months later, in the cold light projected at a sparsely attended press screening?
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It’s still a powerful if uneven political docudrama: ambitious, preachy, oversimplified, exciting and often at its most effective when it sticks to the facts. Its strongest asset remains a perspective that was not widely available in late 1999, when the protests against the World Trade Organization closed the streets of downtown Seattle.
The first-time writer-director, Stuart Townsend, is clearly on the side of the protesters, especially the ones who attempted to keep the demonstrations nonviolent. He sometimes characterizes the WTO as the kind of resource-gobbling corporate beast that Mel Brooks once called “Engulf N Devour.”
But he also allows for several shades of gray. Following a potted history of the WTO (helpful and not too intrusive), he opens the film with the startling image of a longtime activist (Michelle Rodriguez) hoisting a protest banner from a crane and being rescued by her future boyfriend (Martin Henderson).
Their love story, and the love story of a policeman (Woody Harrelson) and his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron), are used, rather schematically, to establish the arguments for and against the protests. Also making points are an activist who almost gives up (Jennifer Carpenter), an exasperated representative of Doctors Without Borders (Rade Sherbedgia) and a television reporter (Connie Nielsen) who finds herself arrested.
The nonfictional Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, makes a cameo appearance that earned the biggest laugh at the film’s premiere.
Some of the footage of the riots is genuine, supplied by Seattle television stations, and some of it is manufactured. Although it’s relatively easy to guess which is which (the video images are a giveaway), Fernando Villena’s clever editing helps to smooth out any wrinkles. So does the dynamic stereo soundtrack, which was unfortunately muffled at McCaw Hall.
In the tradition of such movies as “Inherit the Wind” and “Compulsion,” which appropriated Clarence Darrow’s courtroom antics but never called him Clarence Darrow, “Battle in Seattle” features recognizable historical figures whose identities are partly inventions.
Seattle’s overwhelmed mayor, played by Ray Liotta, may bear a resemblance to Paul Schell, but he’s called Jim. Washington state’s governor at the time is played by busy Asian actor Tzi Ma (“Rush Hour 3”), who looks like Gary Locke. But why is he called John, and where did he pick up that mid-Pacific accent?
While Liotta has his moments, especially when he’s establishing the mayor as a long-ago protester against the Vietnam War, we never quite understand why he snaps and authorizes the use of tear gas against the activists. Harrelson’s character also turns violent, no doubt because his wife has been gut-punched by a cop, but why does he turn his rage against Henderson?
Still, Harrelson ends up giving the movie’s most deeply felt performance. The casting throughout is spot on, but he’s the one character who notably matures during the hour and a half it takes for the story to unfold. For all its spectacle and political import, “Battle in Seattle” is finally about his journey.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org