Preaching to the choir may feel good, but it rarely creates good art. You can't beat up actor-turned-filmmaker Stuart Townsend's motivations for making his pro-demonstration, anti-World Trade Organization political drama Battle In Seattle. But you can bludgeon him for not doing a very good job.
An admitted attempt to emulate Haskell Wexler's brilliant Medium Cool, Townsend's directorial debut boasts an undeniable visceral intensity as it follows the five days of protests and riots that accompanied the 1999 WTO convention in Seattle. But unlike Wexler, who was able to shoot his movie during the madness of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Townsend is forced to stitch together compelling archival footage of the "first Internet protest in history" with his mediocre Hollywood ensemble drama. While his re-created protest scenes manage to jolt, his characters and labored narrative never rise above the rhetorical.
Following players on all sides of the event, Townsend weaves together a dramatic tapestry (oh, Crash, what have you wrought?) around a single theme. There's the dogged TV news reporter (Connie Nielson), a trio of earnest protest leaders (André Benjamin, Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez), the beleaguered mayor (Ray Liotta), a few troubled delegates and a police officer (Woody Harrelson) whose pregnant wife (Charlize Theron) gets caught between the protesters and overzealous riot cops. Each is confronted with the violently tumultuous realities of the situation, as politics, family crisis and tear gas come together in a chaotic stew.
Townsend shines with his city-under-siege sequences, matching documentary footage with convincingly staged character moments. There's a real sense of danger as crowds of do-gooders and armies of helmeted police square off. Some of the original TV coverage of police brutality is truly unsettling, and the chaos on the streets is palpable. In particular, Townsend does a good job of illustrating the logistics and kamikaze tactics that allowed the protesters to cripple the conference.
It's too bad, then, that the characters' personal moments are so hackneyed and unconvincing. Townsend's dialogue is banal in the extreme, and his plotlines are pulled from any number of TV movie-of-the-week story arcs. Most damning is his inability to effectively articulate why the WTO is so bad. Amidst the shouting, fighting and grandstanding, the movie barely explains what the WTO is. Battle In Seattle earns the rare honor of being an "issue" movie that forgets to tell the audience what the issues are — which is funny, because this is what the real-life protesters failed to convey to the general public. Though their cause was noble, few who watched the news reports or read about the riots understood what was at stake. Near the end of the film, André Benjamin quips, "Three days ago, nobody even knew what the WTO was. Today... they still don't know what it is. But at least they know it's bad." How tragic that Battle In Seattle is an unfortunate case of art repeating history.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.