The Kingdom, directed with endless shaky handycams by former Chicago Hope actor Peter Berg, opens with a striking credits sequence in which a timeline is set for the nation of Saudi Arabia. Starting in 1932(a year before oil was discovered), and tracking America's involvement with the nation through drawings with thick black lines that the 'camera' is constantly moving around and through as they, and the dates, move forward. Over this we get occasional audio culled from documentaries and talking head news reports. A graph showing America's oil consumption compared to the rest of the world becomes a silhouette of the Twin Towers, and as a plane flies towards them the screen goes black, coming back on more scattered images of a post 9/11 world. One speaker laments that Osama, through his use of Saudi extremists in these attacks, has made the nation of Saudi Arabia as a whole an enemy in the eyes of most Americans, when we have been allies for so long. This sequence sets up a movie that will be rife with political subtext, a message movie if ever there was one. Unfortunately that movie is not The Kingdom.
After setting up in the opening sequence how Saudi Arabia is not the enemy, the movie seems to lose that faith, and in fact every Saudi is a potential, and likely, killer. The uniformed Saudis are seen as strict, prone to torture(all except for our hero, Faris, played by Ashraf Barhom), and basically either inept or uncaring about a suicide bombing that kills several hundred American men, women and children. They aren't monsters, but they are apathetic about what they see as a corrupting influence on their soil, and not inclined to hunt too seriously for the perpetrators of this heinous act. On the other side of the coin are the civilians, who all seem to be gunmen waiting for the opportunity to strike out at Americans(and, in one scene, that's just what they are). Surprisingly, especially after that credits sequence, the movie loses all interest in politics, or message. Making a movie purely for entertainment, not for political reasons, is nothing to be ashamed of, and anyone looking to a movie for insightful, informed opinions on the 'war on terror' are looking in the wrong place. Still, it's a bit jarring that the movie seems to have no political point of view. To take something this current, where people are dieing every day, and just the merest mention of the subject is enough to draw even the quietest person into a heated debate, and then to completely ignore politics or higher meaning seems a bit... opportunistic.
Instead of politics the movie aims for compassion, trying to show the human side of this war by teaming four FBI agents with a Saudi military man, Colonel Faris Al Ghazi, who appears to be the only Saudi in the film who has misgivings about the violence in his country. This movie tugs at the hearts strings, with scenes where American agents, fresh from killing family members in front of children, win back the hearts of the people by giving those same children a lollipop. 'Sorry I just shot your brother and grandfather to death, but here, have some hard candy. We cool?' This is also a film where action sequences and killings end with a joke and a hearty laugh from the audience. The film features a musical montage of understanding, where the daily life of Saudis is shown cross-cut between images of the American agents going about their investigation. The problem is, this film doesn't have the conviction to reach what it's aiming for. No attempt is made to explain, explore or understand the Saudi Arabian culture. We see endless shots of people stopping to pray at various times of the day, but no effort to support the central idea that 'we are actually all the same creature.'
There is one successful, tense sequence near the end of the film where our heroes, en route to the airport, are ambushed by terrorists, and Agent Leavitt(Jason Bateman) is drawn from the car and thrown into the back of a black SUV. This begins a lengthy chase scene, where the group must race through mazes of streets, and then mazes of dilapidated apartments, hunting for Leavitt before he is beheaded on video for a terrorist website. The tension is undercut slightly by the repeated use of handheld cameras. Normally, I love handheld video. I like the way it looks and think it can be quite an effective style, but this movie continually overdoes it. I didn't get nauseous, but I did get a slight headache when the film would always cut away just before the camera came into focus. Trying to make out whats going on onscreen is sometimes an impossible feat.
In the end, the point of this film, the 'message', if you will, seems to be that we CAN all get along. Americans and Saudis CAN overcome their differences and coexist in harmony, so long as we can just get together and kill a bunch of people. Actually, this may be true, and certainly it's worked in the past. It worked at Salem, when all those people came together to burn witches, it worked for the Aztecs with their ritual sacrifices, and hell, it worked for Hitler when he united Germany against the Jews. The problem is that now we understand that our enemy are humans too, with families and jobs, hopes and dreams. The enemy may hate us, but they've been given a tainted image of America, what with the constant meddling from oil companies, and the propaganda news reports. Some of us may hate Saudis, but we have a tainted image formed from propaganda news reports and faulty 9/11 connections. The average man on the street these days is aware of this problem, and we find it hard to categorically condemn an entire people. This idea, instead of uniting us, actually divides us further.
The movie is probably not as insidious as all that, and certainly the audience I was with enjoyed it quite a bit more than I did. Chances are most people will enjoy this more than I did, but I was just confused. What was the point of this film? Why set up a political hot button issue and then ignore politics all together? The movie attempts to gain focus at the end with a coda that implies the violence will never end because both sides jump to bloodthirsty anger faster than they turn to discourse and discussion. Just like that man in the theatre. So maybe this movie is more prescient than I thought, but it's still a muddled, unlikable message.