No movie made in Seattle has had so much positive local brand awareness as Battle in Seattle, even if most of it was actually shot in Vancouver, B.C., to save money. It’s not only flattering to us hometown viewers to have our fair civic name in the title (just like Sleepless!), but the battleground was ours. We get to claim victory! Or did, back when writer-director Stuart Townsend’s leftie melodrama opened SIFF this spring. McCaw Hall rose in applause (the presence of Townsend’s Oscar-winning girlfriend Charlize Theron, along with the film’s other stars, surely helped). This was our Lexington, our Concord, our Boston Tea Party all combined. This was our story on screen—the tear gas, costumed turtle marchers, weak politicians, and overzealous cops. And here was our validation—a movie! Plus movie stars, a red carpet, and everything!
Remind me again what those demonstrations against the World Trade Organization actually accomplished. Other than to bring political conscience to an Irish actor who, as he admitted at SIFF, “didn’t read a newspaper or watch TV for 15 years”? Before, he was just another pretty face from Queen of the Damned, which he disavowed with the rest of his prior career as “eight years of barren wasteland.” (Here’s a free PR tip for aspiring directors: If you’re gonna slag off on all your past work and professional associations, your first movie had better be Citizen Kane. They’ll remember those remarks back on the set of Queen of the Damned 2: Damnable Boogaloo.)
Because the WTO and all multinational corporations are inherently evil, you see, Battle in Seattle is being self-distributed in a few markets around the U.S. (It also opens in New York this week.) Indie is as indie does, though it’s hard to imagine the film being suppressed by the likes of Rupert Murdoch or Halliburton. They’d probably just make it into a ringtone.
I’d love to tell you that Battle is a feat of guerrilla filmmaking or a Godardian critique of international capitalism, but it’s conventional to its core. Two couples are caught up in the swirl and ebb of global events: Peaceful protest organizer Jay (Martin Henderson) and hotheaded Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) are on one side of the picket lines; on the other are cop Dale (Woody Harrelson) and his pregnant shopgirl wife Ella (Theron).
At first, Battle does a brisk, effective job of cutting back and forth between the parallel preparations of Jay’s anti-trade-niks and the well-intentioned Seattle authorities. (Ray Liotta is the jowly concerned stand-in for mayor Paul Schell.) These two basically decent factions aren’t so different, the film implies, while it’s the WTO delegation that’s landing like an Armani spaceship from Planet Greed. Later, when those dreaded Eugene anarchists show up to torch the Starbucks and lead the national news, they’ll also be treated as outside alien forces.
Townsend has professed his admiration for Medium Cool (filmed during the violent 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention) and the great Paul Greengrass docudrama Bloody Sunday (in which British troops fire on Irish Catholic marchers). In both, the mob overruns individual intentions—for good or ill—and creates a new historical momentum. Unfortunately, unlike actual local documentaries that got there first, including This Is What Democracy Looks Like and Trade Off (footage from which Townsend borrows), Battle tries to add character and backstory.
And there, in its flat, declaratory writing, is where the movie utterly fails. Any time Battle stops for a political discussion, usually indoors, it really stops—like actors are reading from a pamphlet just stuffed in their hands. From what I recall of ’99, the cardboard signs and slogans had more depth. In the Battle melee, there are way too many characters, too briefly met, too thinly drawn. Least forgivable among the effigies is the Chinese-American governor—i.e., Gary Locke—who speaks with a “No tickee, no shirtee!” accent.
If Townsend had done nothing more than send his handheld camera into a scrum of actors, Battle would’ve captured some of the rousing chaos that I and others experienced firsthand in ’99: It was exciting, it was a little scary and out of control, and no one knew from an ants’-eye level where things were headed.
Nine years later, we have a pretty good idea. The WTO has learned to hold its meetings in more discreet, less publicly accessible settings. The international flow of labor and capital is even larger and more volatile. Economies are more unbalanced, nations more asymmetrical, the wage gap between top and bottom all the more vast. And yet we who protested back in ’99, then cheered so proudly at SIFF, still wear our made-in-China Nikes, talk on cell phones manufactured in Taiwan, place orders to call centers in India, and pay our mortgages to foundering banks who’ve sold them off as securities now owned in Dubai.
In a postscript, Battle strains hard to convince us of the importance of our Seattle protests, that “the battle continues” and we somehow altered the course of history. I’m not persuaded, though it makes me rethink an old slogan: If, from the riots, one guy got his movie made, maybe the professional is the political.