STUDIO: Screen Media
MSRP: $14.98
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
• Behind-the-scenes featurette
• Commentary w/ writer/director Stuart Townsend
• Interviews with world trade leaders

The Pitch

“It’s like Crash but with more collapses of international trade talks!”

The Humans

Martin Henderson (The Ring), Michelle Rodriguez, Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter), Ray Liotta, Andre Benjamin Ice Cold 3000, Connie Nielsen (Gladiator), Channing Tatum (Fighting).

The Nutshell

On November 20th, 1999, the World Trade Organization was supposed to hold an international summit in Seattle, WA. Several nonviolent protests had been organized by environmentalists, political dissidents, and labor unions. The police were on hand to ensure the peace, like they do. Somehow things turned violent and the protests gradually escalated into a full-scale riot.

What does the footnote say?

That’s the history. The story of the movie sets an ensemble cast of fictional characters inside these events, giving a liar’s view of the action at ground level from the perspectives of the police, the protesters, the ambassadors of trade, and the political leadership.

The Lowdown

I’m not one to ding a story for getting its history wrong. There’s nothing wrong with embellishing fact with a bit of fiction, now and then. Fiction can illuminate the truth behind a situation, or — for those more-frequent situations for which there is no objective truth — fiction can provide an entry point into consideration of the complexities of history. That’s making the assumption that the storytellers have wrought their embellishments so as to participate in history, rather than dominate it.

Battle in Seattle neatly divides itself in two across that line. The first half introduces the ensemble quickly and with the bare minimum exposition. These characters work as figureheads for the various forces of the story, and inexorably draw closer together as the film approaches its middle and the eruption of the riots. There’s plenty of restraint in the script during this section, depending on the scenario to provide the momentum rather than the character.

In my opinion, this works beautifully. The plot surges toward the outbreak of violence and the characters simply function as handholds, so the audience can get a solid grip before everything crashes together.

This grouping is based on the assumption that the police don’t have a front-end loader.

It’s at the point of escalation, though, that Battle in Seattle loses its identity. The broad, withdrawn view of the riots abruptly tightens down on the intertwined, character-level stories, to the detriment of the overall plot. The film switches from being a modern history, and an observation on the power of chain reaction events and misinformation, to following a few characters who — while participating directly in the events — become a greater concern to the filmmakers than the massive conflict surrounding them.

It’s an uneven transition, at best, even if you do identify or sympathize with one or more of the protagonists. It smells faintly of bait-and-switch. The characters function ably as entry points into the circumstances of the WTO riots; when forced assume the inertia built up over the first act, they’re not quite equal to the task. They exist and act despite the events around theme, none of them contributing much individually to the theme of group power. The fiction parts try to raise itself above the facts even though, unfortunately for the audience, the facts are far more engaging.

I’d recognize those boobs anywhere!

Maybe if the characters had received more attention in the first act, it wouldn’t be so bad; on the other hand, the very thing I admire about the first half is its largely detached viewpoint and the elegance with which it tugs the knot of the engagement ever tighter. None of this should be construed as a slight against the actors. Everyone here does the best with their roles. What I object to is the fronting of those roles in the second half, none of which are deep enough to sustain interest. Out of all the characters, strangely enough its the ones played by the smaller-name stars that resonate the most. Martin Henderson as a principled activist; Jennifer Carpenter as a lawyer/protester who doesn’t like getting her hands dirty; Connie Nielsen as a reporter whose unbiased viewpoint goes out the window. I even liked Michelle Rodriguez’s role, which is a first for me.

But they’re all peripheral to the real story, the explosion of violence and counter-violence, of bad ideas and of good ideas executed poorly. The characters are cogs in the greater machine. They don’t need to be crafted with care, or elevated above the workings of the thing to which they contribute. Precision, here, would be more advantageous than anything else.

Our local Wal-Mart had the same sign up in the employee’s lounge.
Then management laughed at them for not having a union.

Director and writer Stuart Townsend (working on his debut in both areas, here) makes the good decision to follow the aftermath of the riots out for a ways, aware that his late-coming commitment to character wants nurturing. Unfortunately, after all the quality time spent with the lead-up and the riots themselves, there’s not much film left. The intricacies of the fallout of the riots get crammed into the last twenty minutes, smoothing over and lessening the already-small impact of the personal stories. The credits come too soon, in a way, but at the same time I regret that I was well eager for the end by the time it finally showed up.

The riots — devoid of character and of fiction — were a fascinating, brief event in the history of my home state, and of the relationship between the power of the people and the power of the mob. Battle in Seattle sparks the interest, but its presentation is dampened by its fairweather emphasis on characters and its inability to settle on being historical fiction — or history, seen through a lens of fiction.

In a show of smurfidarity with our blue friends everywhere.

The Package

A slim number of bonuses, but pretty good ones. Stuart Townsend’s solo commentary gives a lot of insight into his choices, his biases, and his interest in the subject, and maybe a glimmer of why he didn’t choose to make a documentary. The behind-the-scenes bit showcases a bit more of the history of the scenario, and the select interviews with people affiliated with international trade offer a bit more illumination of the proceedings, but in an abstract sort of way. What comes out the most is how dumbstruck people are at the rate and cause of escalation from peaceful, lawful protest to all-out riot, and at whether the capitulation of the WTO delegates actually had an effect on the mood of the Seattle citizens.

6 out of 10