Following hard on Paul Haggis’ mournfully powerful In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom represents another Hollywood entry into this fall’s post 9/11, Iraq-conscious line-up. Of the upcoming battery of films, The Kingdom may be the most unobjectionable, accessible and ultimately, most entertaining.
Known as “the Kingdom,” Saudi Arabia, like Japan, is a country at once thoroughly modern and spectacularly ancient. Like all of the Middle East, it was carved up and partitioned by Western occupiers without any thought for tribal delineations. Its relationship with the United States is one of mutual beneficence—they supply us with oil and we supply them with arms—though neither country implicitly trusts the other. An opening timeline intersperses archival footage and news clips to explain the history of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, an essential history lesson if the viewer is to understand the complex and nuanced nature of the relationship between the two strange bedfellows.
When multiple terrorist bombs are detonated on an American base in Saudi Arabia, killing hundreds of men, women and children, an FBI anti-terrorism forensic team travels to the country to investigate. They are most certainly not welcome. The Saudis consider the incident a local matter and look upon the Americans with suspicion and distrust. FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) and his team (the always good Chris Cooper, the incidentally beautiful Jennifer Garner, and the hilarious but never inappropriately so, Jason Bateman) scour the blast site, examine the bodies, calculate how the audacious attack was carried out, and try to track down its perpetrator. They are determined to unravel the “who” and the “why” before protocol and red tape yank back on their ever-shortening leash.
Overseeing their every move is the stern but fair-minded Colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhoum), a Saudi military police officer who is every bit as disgusted by terrorism as his American counterparts but under intense political, social and religious pressure to sweep them and their investigation under the rug. Al-Ghazi is our conduit into a world that feels alien and foreboding, a culture so different than our own that it hardly seems possible we inhabit the same planet. But by seeing Al-Ghazi both on the job, interacting with Fleury and his team, and at home, playing with his children, we realize our two peoples have much more in common than we have in opposition.
It would be very easy for The Kingdom to slip into a dangerously jingoistic and xenophobic experience. Indeed, early test screenings in which audiences cheered aloud as Arabs fell to a hail of American bullets, left the filmmakers deeply troubled. Were audiences able to differentiate between the terrorists and those Arabs on the side of the Americans and the terrorists, or were all Arabs seen as one, monolithic and reviled block?
Though the film goes to great lengths to separate the good guys from the bad guys, it cannot control spectators’ responses. Doubtless some may see the film as little more than “Cowboys and Indians.” That is as deeply troubling as it is painful, and only enforces the final, haunting seconds of the film in which the carnage is revealed to be just a spoke on a never-ending cycle of violence.
The final half hour of The Kingdom is jaw dropping. You may find it impossible to breathe. Reminiscent of a scene in the Tom Clancy thriller Clear and Present Danger, a caravan of SUV’s comes under attack in a narrow alley and must fight its way to safety. Despite its marketing, The Kingdom is not an action film. It is a forensic multi-murder mystery that just happens to have one of the most tension filled climaxes ever put on film.
Director Peter Berg (who helmed both the film and TV versions of Friday Night Lights) has always had a filmmaking style much like The Bourne Ultimatum’s Paul Greengrass—handheld cameras lurch after the action, lending to an organic, if slightly queasy feel—and it is exactly right for this film. Producer Michael Mann’s (the director of Heat, and Collateral) measured and deliberate influence is no less present. While the “CSI: Saudi Arabia” jokes are inevitable, The Kingdom stands as a smart, slick and very enjoyable thriller, deftly mixing Hollywood’s summer bombast with the thoughtfulness of fall season.