Kingdom, The (2007): Directed by Peter Berg, Starring Jammie Fox

What begins as a specifically grounded political thriller in “The Kingdom” gradually turns into a well-crafted but formulaic actioner that could have been set in various countries, against different political conflicts, rather than Saudi Arabia, where this particular saga takes place.

That said, actor-turned director Peter Berg continues to show progress as filmmaker, here benefiting no doubt from his ace producer Michael Mann, who must have exerted influence on the film’s striking visual style, manifest in fast-moving, hand-held camera, brilliantly orchestrated sound effects, and other technical aspects.

Handsomely mounted, if calculated and manipulative, “The Kingdom” also benefits from a stellar cast, headed by Jamie Foxx (Oscar-winner for “Ray”), who gives a more likable and commanding performance than in Sam Mendes’s Desert Storm military actioner “Jarhead,” which divided film reviewers for artistic reasons. “The Kingdom” will divide film critics and viewers in terms of its politics and ideology (see below).

Indeed, some critics will have reservations about the movie’s gung-ho politics and its pro-American slant in both text and subtext. However, with the right marketing and handling “The Kingdom” may become the first 9/11 commercial hit, since its brand of “Americanism” might be embraced by both Republican and Democratic filmgoers. The movie will be released September 28, just two weeks after the sixth anniversary of 9/11.

“The Kingdom” is Peter Berg’s biggest production to date, with a considerable budget ($70 million) and state-of-the art technology. As a high-voltage crowd-pleaser, it’s more in the vein of Berg’s former hit, “Friday Night Lights” than his noir films, such as “Very Bad Things,” which was pretentious.

A short pre-credit sequence chronicles with title cards and newsreel footage Saudi Arabia’s political history from the 1930s to the present–the country’s control of oil supplies and shifting diplomatic relationship with various U.S. administrations. After that, we witness a huge suicide bomber explosion, two explosions, in fact, that kill innocent American civilians and local soldiers, too. Two Saudi African officers are shot in cold blood by masked men while sitting in their vehicle.

Cut to Washington D.C and the world of diplomacy, represented by the likes of influential socialites, intellectuals, and soft politicians. Predictably, the U.S. leaders want to handle the crisis with quiet, discreet diplomacy rather than retaliatory action or aggressive revenge.

A professional group of FBI operatives asks to be transferred immediately to the catastrophe site in order to investigate the terrorist attacks. After some pro-and-con deliberations, their wish (more of an insistent demand) is fulfilled, and conditions and limitations are set to a mission that’s highly risky, both politically and personally.

The team’s head FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Foxx) can’t conceal his anger that the terrorists got on a presumably well-guarded, sealed-off American colony and blew the place up, indiscriminately killed numerous men, women, and children. There’s another, more personal motivation for the commitment to the task–one of their colleagues was killed.

Fleury’s elite team is diverse, composed of a tough woman, Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), a forensic examiner; the eccentric but efficient Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), an explosives expert; and reluctant hero Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), an intelligent analyst. Once the quartet makes their way into the Saudi Arabia, the ambassador grants them only five days, which makes their task all the more urgent.

Rather quickly, Fleury and his bunch realize they are there on a good-will mission, one without much authority, investigative and otherwise. American diplomat Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven, of TV’s series “entourage,” extremely good here) “advises” them to meet with the Prince and his entourage, visit the site and take some photos-in short, enjoy themselves as tourists. After protests, the group is allowed only five minutes on the site of the disaster, but is forbidden to touch any object or to talk to any of the survivors. Though the explosions occur in broad daylight and in front of civilians’ houses, the diplomats and politicos of both countries claim that there are no witnesses to the bombing. Fleury–and we Americans– know better.

The team is assigned a Saudi Colonel named Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who is to guide and help in uncovering the terrorists. Truly a wild bunch, they are housed in a bare basketball court, without access to something as basic as city map; only a ball to let their steam off. No instructions are given about their task, structure of the day, or when they’ll be picked up. They are told their day will begin as soon as their gracious but suspicious host, arrives. Needless to say, Fleury’s team begins to tire of the regulations and the unnecessary reliance on slow, incompetent, perhaps even corrupt, local law enforcers.

During their brief stay, various tensions come to the fore, as for example, the gender-sex issue. Disregarding the strict Saudi Arabian decorum, Janet sports tight T-shirt and pants that reveal a shapely body, and she talks, drinks, and kicks ass as good as-perhaps better than–the boys. There’s also the issue of the team’s “inappropriate,” or “foul” language and dark humor, which the hosts either innocently don’t understand or deliberately misunderstand.

For his high-voltage picture, Berg has assembled a group of actors who bring intensity to their dialogue, a combo of scripted and improvised lines. Foxx, last seen in Michael Mann’s disappointing actioner “Miami Vice,” but still one of the coolest, most modernist actors around, is well cast as hot-tempered, action-oriented FBI agent.

The interaction between Fleury and the good Saudi Colonel (Ashraf Barhoum) provides serious and not-so-serious culture-clashes, and also arguments over tactics and strategies that gradually (and predictably) turn the second half of the feature into a variant of the buddy-buddy movie. In the end, their rapport leads to mutual respect and camaraderie, with added familial overtones.

Bateman, as Adam Leavitt, the band’s reluctant hero, delivers some cool, smart-ass statements, before he’s captured and tortured by the bad Saudis. Indeed, Adam’s humor ends in a wrenching scene in which he is captured, tortured and about to be executed in a manner that recalls the highly-publicized execution of journalist Daniel Pearl (the subject of Michael Winterbottom’s failed film, “A Mighty Heart”).

Loosely based on the FBI’s investigation of the 1996 bombings of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia’s Dhahran, which Berg read about in the memoir “My FBI,” written by former Bureau director Louis Freeh, the workable (but not great) script is penned by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who’s the scribe of Redford’s upcoming political drama, “Lions for Lambs.”

“The Kingdom” offers a more emotional and visceral than intellectual experience. Thematically, not much in the film is really controversial. Nor is the movie “too deep,” vis-a-vis the new complex geopolitical scene, well-captured by a movie like “Syriana.” As noted, kicking off the plot with a large-scale terrorist attack that kills American contractors and their families could have takenand has takenplace anywhere, in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq.

Director Berg uses terrorism as a setup for a rapidly moving high-energy procedural thriller.
Authenticity is not an issue: Political reality has become so chaotic and messy, that almost every single event in the film feels real, i.e., could have actually happened. The problem is more in the American macho bravado tone, manifest in every aspect of the production.

Periodically, Berg and his writer resort to clichs in the portrayal of the good and bad Saudi Arabians. They show men wearing black mask, perhaps all too soon, or men with missing fingers, which has become a signpost for suicide bomb makers.

The movie is symmetrically framed by two scenes involving children. The first one depicts Fleury and his own son in a kindergarten, with the father telling a story to his captive audience–perhaps a reminder of where Bush happened to be in the early hours of 9/11

In contrast, the last scene depicts Fleury consoling a Saudi Arabian boy (whose identity can’t be disclosed here) in the patronizing manner that John Wayne used to behave in his war pictures with Filipino boys during WWII (“Back to Bataan”) and later Vietnamese kids in his Vietnam action flicks (“The Green Berets”).

“The Kingdom” was shot in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and in our own Arizona desert, where an elaborate and and scary car-chase sequence takes place. Visually, the movie unfolds as an exciting spectacle. Berg creates scenes of chaos that runs amok, imbuing his film with a gritty, down-and-dirty look that relies on restless, disorienting camera, both hand-held and stationary.

Steering clear off hot-button religious or political issues, “The Kingdom” instead centers on a wild bunch of pros trying to do their best to battle violence-and in the process make the world a better place to live in. As such, it encourages the audience to root for the triumph of good over evil, which explains why at the end of the screening I attended there was applause.

Even so, the political agenda of “The Kingdom” is evident in verbal and non-verbal scenes that suggest that only Americans can do the job quickly and effectively. These chauvinistic elements about the vigor the American military institution, the American know-how, should prove problematic for some viewers. The messages are stated explicitly in several agit-prop speeches, where Fleury says: “Let us teach you how we Americans can help you resolve your problems.” The movie implies that Saudi Arabia, and by extension other foreign countries, of First World and Third World, are not strong or skillful enough to fight terrorism without assistance from the U.S.

Cast

Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx)
Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper)
Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner)
Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman)
Col. Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom)
Sgt. Haytham (Ali Suliman)
Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven)

Credits

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 150 Minutes.

A Universal release, presented in association with Relativity Media, of a Forward Pass/Stuber-Parent production.
Produced by Michael Mann, Scott Stuber. Executive producers: Mary Parent, Steven Saeta, Sarah Aubrey, John Cameron, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Co-producer, K.C. Hodenfield.
Directed by Peter Berg.
Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan.
Camera: Mauro Fiore.
Editors: Kevin Stitt, Colby Parker Jr.
Music: Danny Elfman; music supervisor, Kathy Nelson.
Production designer: Tom Duffield; supervising art director, Patrick M. Sullivan Jr.
Art director: A. Todd Holland.
Set designer: Aaron Haye; set decorator, Ron Reiss.
Costume designer: Susan Matheson.
Makeup: Bill Myer.
Sound: Willie D. Burton.
Visual effects supervisor: John “D.J.” Desjardins.
Supervising special effects coordinator: John Frazier.
Visual effects: Rhythm & Hues.
Stunt coordinator: Keith Woulard.

Written by Emanuel Levy and Anne Stein