Battle in Seattle is a docudrama that chokes to death on its good intentions. An all-star cast of socially committed actors chew through cheesy melodramatics, all in an effort to send a message. And all I could think about was that famous quote by Hollywood war horse Samuel Goldwyn from back in the day:
"If you wanna send a message, call Western Union!"
This film about the 1999 street struggles to shut down, or at least call attention to, the anti-democratic excesses of the World Trade Organization when it met in Seattle might have delivered its message, had it been able to punch through the cliches.
Don't care about the WTO? Maybe you should, the next time you worry about that Chinese anti-freeze in your dog food, or which city in India your job was outsourced to. As the sermonizing activists in Seattle shout out, "nobody elected them," and yet this free-trade-at-all-costs forum of government ministers and lobbyists (who get equal status) has an absurd amount of power over our lives and our world.
In Battle, we hang out with committed, organized activists who converge on such globalization meetings, demonstrate, show off their props -- coffins with "Democracy" written on them, globes with dollar signs replacing countries -- and try to get on the Big Media TV news to get their message out. They plan stunts (hanging banners from construction cranes), plot street marches and write the phone numbers of their groups' lawyers on their arms "for when you get arrested."
In parallel scenes, we see the city (Ray Liotta plays the mayor) try to accommodate free speech, only to underestimate the practiced skill and sheer numbers of protesters. But as the city leaders fret over the embarrassing face the shut-down of the WTO meetings shows the world, the activists have no moment to celebrate. Anarchists in their midst turn everything violent. And that's when the cops cut loose.
Battle in Seattle mixes documentary footage of the marches, the riots and the TV coverage with the stories of fictional characters caught up in events. Charlize Theron is a pregnant clerk at a swank downtown department store. Woody Harrelson is her cop husband. We spend the movie waiting for her to lose that baby and him to lose his cool and start busting heads.
Martin Henderson is the organizer, a protester with a guilty conscience and a fierce will to succeed. If only he can decide between the athletic new marcher in his midst (Michelle Rodriguez) and the organization's lawyer, his ex (Jennifer Carpenter).
Meanwhile, the protests are so disrupting the proceedings that a Doctor Without Borders (Rade Serbidzjija) Ö can't make his case for cheap AIDS drugs for Africa. And a TV reporter (Connie Nielsen) becomes so outraged by the police excesses and the WTO's efforts to stifle criticism that she becomes a protest sympathizer.
It's all simple agitprop, a movie that beats you over the head with its message even as it bores you to death with its formulaic plot, characters and situations. Actor-turned writer-director Stuart Townsend (Theron's squeeze) makes great use of the documentary footage of the '99 Seattle WTO riots. And truth be told, he gets across his talking points about this shadowy outfit, too. It's a shame his script and all his actor friends get in the way.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun