Even before it was released to theaters, The Siege was accruing baggage like Joan Collins packing for Paris. The Arab-American Anti-Defamation League denounced it as fomenting anti-Arab sentimentan understandable reaction considering that the film’s plot revolves around a series of cold-blooded terrorist attacks by shifty Middle Easterners under the ideological control of a certain elusive Ahmed Bin Talal. (Any resemblance to the real-life mysterious cleric Osama Bin Laden is purely because they’re the same person.) The movie argues that the terrorist juggernaut holding New York City in its grip is the sound of the other shoe droppingAmericans expect Muslim fanatics to get medieval on our asses every time a car so much as backfires. Add to this the loathsome indifference to Arab stereotyping in this country, and you’ve got a movie made to be blocked by picket lines.
But The Siege carries aesthetic baggage as well, which is tied up inextricably in its cultural attaché case. It is a pulp remake of the classic agitprop film The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 pro-revolutionary fictional documentary about the struggle for Algerian independence under the French. (And here I was still reeling from all the Peckinpah references in The Mask of Zorro.) Director Edward Zwick’s technical swipes from Pontecorvo, too numerous to count, establish a sense that a shadow film is at work behind the “turban scare” scenario of the first hour. In its last third, The Siege blossoms into an almost complete refutation of what came before, putting the audience into the unusual position of stand-in for the film’s representation of New Yorkers and then messing with their minds.
The first hour is, as hyped, a jaw-dropping scenario of crazed extremists on an anti-American rampage. The film opens with footage of a bombing at the American embassy in Saudi Arabia. FBI Agent Anthony “Hub” Hubbard (Denzel Washington) and his partner, Frank Haddad (Tony Shalhoub), track the culprits to Bin Talal (Ahmed Ben Larby). Soon the action moves home, as one horrifying bombing after anotheron a city bus, at a swanky theaterconfound investigators and send New York into a frenzy. Leather-jacketed 40-year-old urchin Elise Kraft (Annette Bening) begins showing up on the scene, slouching and smirking and claiming she’s from the National Security Agency, although she acts like a loony passer-by. Without ever checking her credentials, Hubbard and Haddad agree to let her help by tweaking her low-level terrorist-cell contacts. The bombers demand Bin Talal’s release, but U.S. Army representative General William Devereaux (Bruce Willisthere’s a whole lot of smirking going on in this movie) insists that we don’t have him.
At this point the squirming filmgoer has to ask himself: Artistic freedom is all well and good, but do studios have the right to freak people out to this degree? The terrorist attacks are truly scary; worse, there’s no hard talk about giving in to their demandsthe FBI would hand over the terrorist mastermind in a heartbeat if it meant the killings would stop. But if he’s not in U.S. custody, Hubbard and Haddad can only stand by and watch the carnage on TV with the rest of the nation.
Devereaux’s answer to this conundrum soon makes the viewer’s questions moothe puts the city under lockdown, rounding up young Arab-American men and throwing them into a makeshift camp in Yankee Stadium. The siege of the title is not the state of frozen panic into which New York City has been thrown by the terrorist attacks, but a crackdown on citizens’ rights by its own government and carte blanche for American racism to run amok. It is with Devereaux’s first appearance that the sense of cinematic déjà vu kicks injust like Battle of Algiers’ Colonel Mathieu marching into the city before a menacing battalion, he rides a tank across the Brooklyn Bridge, wearing neat fatigues and a cocked beret, and delivers a justification of the Army’s program for persecuting and detaining every young Arab male in Brooklyn.
This is where the movie reveals its real motives, implying that the American citizenry would have little to fear from foreigners if our own government weren’t totally corrupt. Of course, we have Bin Talalthat’s clear from the opening scenebut the Army is looking for an excuse to indulge in some home-grown ethnic cleansing, and what better target than Arabs, who are already a feared and mistrusted minority?
Willis’ updated version of the wry, intelligent Colonel Mathieu (the French surname is a nice touch) is only the most blatant shard of the kaleidoscopic Battle of Algiers pastiche that forms the last third of the film. Scene by scene, The Siege replays Pontecorvo’s greatest hits: Kraft gives a lecture on the structure of the terrorist cells; a spindly, balding prisoner is seen being interrogated and tortured in a chilly bathroom; at one point, Hubbard and Haddad dress as Arab women, just like the revolutionary heroes Ali La Pointe and Djafar; there are solemn passages set to music in which Devereaux gets tough with the enemy; bodies are pulled from rubble; and young men are rounded up roughly. The most moving scene is Zwick’s alonea panicked and furious Haddad awaiting his own son’s release from the concentration camp his government built.
In the end, Zwick tries to have it both waysThe Siege is a fierce denouncement of American racism and government perfidy fueled by genuine Middle Eastern zealotry. The reason we never see Hubbard checking up on Kraft’s legitimacy is so that Zwick can keep open the possibility that she is in cahoots with the Arabs she controls, and that they aren’t innocent students with some shady connections but suicide bombers laying plans for the big blastall of this, sort of, turns out to be true. As pieces of moviemaking, Zwick’s inventions do Pontecorvo proudthere’s a horror-movie scene with an awful modern twist when, in a conference room of bigwigs deciding how to deal with the terrorist rampage, one man’s beeper goes off, then another’s, and soon the whole room is filled with an ominous chirping that signals news of another attack.
But casting Washington as the heroic G-man paralyzed by international gamesmanship that he has not been prepared foror even taught to fathomis an interesting bit of question-begging. As a black man in America, Hubbard has already gotten his, so he watches with a particularly poignant disbelief as another American holocaust takes shape around him. Like the terrorist cells that Kraft says multiply like earthworms when divided, racism is an unstoppable force, turning the strongest citizens on the most vulnerable with a few lies and some well-placed propaganda. The Siege is a very weird movietwo movies, actuallyfull of bombast and uncomfortable to watch, but it is a bleak, fascinating portrait of a country in search of an enemy.
Oscar Wilde is the fairy godmother whose spirit hovers over Todd Haynes’ bedazzling paean to ’70s glam rock and guides the dreams of future superstars Jack Fairy, Brian Slade, and Curt Wild a hundred years after his reign. Wilde invented the unemployed celebrity, manufactured fabulousness as a way of life, and embodied the mainstream idea of outrageousnessan auteur of epigrammatic wit better manifested by his style than his words. Velvet Goldmine is nothing like a standard rock biopic, which tracks the rise and fall of a star made vain and overindulgent by his successthese kids were born vain and overindulgent rock stars, wanting only a record contract to seal the deal. Theirs was the first generation of celebrities to exist wholly in Wilde’s feathery phantasmagoria. Haynes argues with touching bitterness that it was also the last.
Christian Bale plays British journalist Arthur Stuart, working at a New York newspaper that wants him to do a lifestyle piece on the 10th anniversary of bisexual glam sensation Brian Slade’s 1974 faked onstage assassination and subsequent disappearance. What his editors don’t know is that Stuart was at that performance, and that, far from being just the house British-pop expert, he’s a refugee from the center of the London glitter scene, one of the thousands of working-class kids who transformed themselves in Slade’s image and learned deep truths about life from the scene’s shallowest affectations. Citizen Kane-style, Stuart compiles his story by tracking down Slade’s first manager, his ex-wife, and an American rocker who dallied in the studio and elsewhere with the irresistible, androgynous beauty.
The life these memories piece together isn’t Slade’s per se, or even that of Stuart’s growing gay consciousness, but the life of a movement that traded on surface effect while wrenching a dizzying sense of liberation and sexual freedom out of the societies it scourged. Glitter rock is a musical blip now, but Haynes sees it as a fulcrum between the messy exuberance of the hippie movement and the cool edge of punk, a gateway to gay liberation, the death knell of 20th-century good times. The 1984 in which Stuart lives is straight out of Orwell by way of Terry Gilliamgray and grimy, with haunted subways and dead-end citizens, presided over by a preacherlike singer with uncanny poofy yellow hair. No wonder Stuart slouches around in the same disappointed gray as the rest of humanityhis worst nightmare has come true, and the glam revolution has led to nothing less horrifying than the worldwide pop supremacy of Mr. Mister.
As each observer tells his or her story, the film intercuts those memories with Stuart’s in approximately chronological order. Natty manager Cecil (Michael Feast) first sees Slade (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) at the Sombrero, a London club that serves as a sort of petri dish for the upcoming style and sexual revolution, populated by young folk and gay grown-ups who eschew the filth and politics of the hippies. At this point, Slade has moved from the cold pseudo-gangsterism of the Mod scene into a gorgeous limbo of fur jackets, Botticelli hair, and acoustic guitars. Riveted, Cecil takes him on as a client and watches helplessly while Slade charts his own loopy fashion course, performing in flowing dresses while rock ‘n’ roll crowds shout him down. After one such poor reception at an outdoor concert, Slade takes in the main attraction: Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), a mangy, shirtless Detroit singer with the kind of raw power Slade himself is lacking.
Cannily, Slade transforms himself again, this time into a satin-suited creature of fantasy, the ruler of a planet that’s yet to be discovered. Cecil loses his client to showboating industry jackal Jerry Divine (Eddie Izzard) in an arm-wrestling contest; Slade takes an American wife whose affected English accent has a will of its own, and the three of them, along with a coterie of eye-candy assistants and hangers-on, proceed to take over the world. When Slade debuts as himself playing the glamorous alien Pied Piper “Maxwell Demon,” not a 14-year-old in England is safe from glitter eyeshadow.
If some of this sounds familiarthe screaming stage maniac from Michigan, the bisexual British pop tart with an American wife and myriad rainbow-tinted loversit’s supposed to. Velvet Goldmine is a pastiche of the period and its stars, not just David Bowie and his extra-terrestrial counterpart, Ziggy Stardust, and American muse Iggy Pop, but Marc Bolan and T. Rex (suggested by the “Flaming Creatures,” who do a remarkable cover of Bolan’s “20th Century Boy” in Berlin cabaret lingerie), Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, the Velvet Underground (Slade’s band is called Venus in Furs), Brian Eno, the New York Dolls, Gary Glitter, and even the kitsch glam-rock footnote Jobraith, the foldout cover of whose little-too-late album is sent up lovingly as Slade’s The Ballad of Maxwell Demon.
But Velvet Goldmine isn’t about real people, it’s about the movement itself as a manifestation of the highest self-conscious style and the exhilarating properties of music and sexuality. Throughout the expository retelling and the many dazzling numbersstage performances as well as elaborately mannered set piecesHaynes is computing the meaning of this exhilaration, dropping in sequences of cinematic fantasy as audacious as the musical ones created by the glitter stars. He begins his movie in outer space, peeks in on Wilde’s debut as a foundling and naughty schoolboy, tracks dream children as they melt into a fairyland forest, where “everything is perfect, and poisonous.” He disrupts and destroys the images onscreen when the energy threatens to boil over and intercuts scenes of youngsters looking to the heavens, as if this ephemeral and magical moment really did drop from the sky like a moon-age daydream. Wilde’s baton is an emerald trinket passed among characters as they ascend the pop heights”the smoke from your cigarette a ladder,” as Slade’s signature tune goes, tipping a sharp fedora in Bowie’s direction. Even Wilde’s epigrams are trotted out for the glam crowd”I wish I’d thought of that,” Slade moans after seeing Wild for the first time. “You will, Brian,” says his wife, Mandy. “You will.”
The result is a spectacular, visceral visual achievement to which the likes of such New Age namby-pamby twaddle as What Dreams May Come cannot compare. But Haynes’ intelligence never turns off; he may show us Curt Wild bare-assing the audience during “T.V. Eye” and Slade making an inferno of Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” but the film is as severe and stylized as Slade himself. It could use more Yankee ferociousness, less of a sense of liberation as a calculated choice. The disappointment of glam’s broken promise is depicted as too total to be reliablethere aren’t even gay people on the grown-up Stuart’s joyless streetsbut it isn’t clear whether Haynes is making a direct connection between the apolitical showmanship of that era and the path-of-least-resistance opportunism of the ’80s.
Where Pleasantville cast Don Knotts as Ronald Reagan, coaxing America to return to a false vision of its past only to fume when human passions transform it, Velvet Goldmine uses the ubiquitous video image of ’80s idol Tommy Stone to decry the spell of blandness under which America snoozed. Haynes’ vision of the ’70s as a sequined bacchanalia makes his grim ’80s doubly sour, but he seems to argue that the machinery of cultural flamboyanceWilde and that emblematic emeraldhad been set in motion. Still, for anyone as captivated by the sensual, senseless beauty of glam, Reagan’s ’80s must have felt like the rudest of shocks. Velvet Goldmine crackles with ideas, overflows with visual audacity, and beguiles like a snake charmer. You leave the theater seeing stars.CP