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    Middle East
     Oct 2, 2007
A failed kingdom
The Kingdom
directed by Peter Berg

Reviewed by Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Hollywood may be the only Western institution that is getting ahead in the "war on terror", and in this new movie it achieves this pretty much along the same lines prescripted by the US government, that is, through simplistic, binary depictions of "good" versus "evil" with formulaic recipes for action - and with predictable results.

The latest intelligence reports on al-Qaeda's resurgence may be

frightening, but it all gets substantially scarier when seeing on the silver screen a portrait of Saudi Arabia, "one of our few remaining allies in the Middle East", per a line in the film, as terrorist infested and its pro-American status quo barely holding together.

Some US reviewers have called this action-packed movie a "serious political thriller", but that is a pure exaggeration. Based loosely on the May 1993 Riyadh terrorist attack that killed 34, including eight Americans, at housing compounds for Westerners, The Kingdom, directed by Peter Berg and starring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, is rather non-stop nonsense from beginning to end. It also has many flaws in the storyline, by a script writer Joe Carnahan, who apparently never bothered to visit Saudi Arabia even once. This makes one wonder about the intelligence level of those "film critics" raving about it, eg, in Variety, describing it as a "realist thriller that mixes crowd-pleasing mayhem with provocative politics".

Let us pinpoint some of The Kingdom's other provocations neglected by mainstream reviewers, such as its veiled, and not so veiled, Saudi-bashing, following in the footsteps of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 (See the author's "Fahrenheit 9/11: Factual or Saudi-bashing" Asia Times Online, July 4, 2004.)

Thus, for example, we learn from a conversation between Foxx, playing a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) lead agent, and a Washington Post reporter, who looks every bit like Leslie Stahl of CBS's 60 Minutes, notorious for her Muslimophobia, that the royal family has been giving donations in the US that "end up blowing things up".

A few scenes later, using this information to blackmail the Saudi ambassador to the US, to grant them a visit to the kingdom to investigate the bombing plot, the Foxx character gets more specific and informs the ambassador that if he does not comply, then the press will ask why a Saudi prince "gave US$2 million to three Arab-American cultural centers outside Boston"?

For those of us with a Middle East background living in the greater Boston area, we may be excused if some of us feel a tiny discomfort, if not outrage, by such references smacking of Islamophobia in America. A colleague I saw the movie with mused on the question: if the all-Jewish producers (eg Michael Mann, who in his The Insider similarly basked in Muslim-bashing) and the director had said "Jewish-American" instead of "Arab-American", wouldn't we be seeing lines of protesters outside the theater? Fair question. Such references to Arab Americans stigmatize members of that community in the US and that is definitely one of the film's subtle shortcomings.

The "clues can help solve the crime", another FBI agent visiting the crime scene tells his Saudi counterparts, who are shown with zero skills in forensic analysis and, worse, almost pathological antipathy toward the "infidel" Americans, nearly all, for after all the movie has its "good" Saudis too, led by a colonel who befriends the four visiting FBI agents and is scolded by another Saudi officer who asks: "Do you want to die defending an enemy?"

Hence, it comes as little surprise then, halfway through the movie, when some of the Saudi soldiers escorting the FBI agents turn out to be with the "enemy" and kidnap one of them. The image of Saudi army and security forces heavily infiltrated by al-Qaeda terrorists is, indeed, one solid impression with which the audience leaves the theater. This image is reinforced throughout the movie in a variety of ways, for example, by a screaming American who has lost his wife and child to the terrorist attack, accusing Saudi soldiers of being behind the atrocity.

The quasi-political kingdom is riveted with niftly little punches, at the sickly-rich, yet naive and clueless, Saudi royal family, and at the Arabic network Al-Jazeera, which would "play up the fact that Americans were involved" in the investigation. Shot mostly in Arizona, with cactus flowers showing in the background in a couple of scenes (!), The Kingdom is a pseudo-realist action movie that succeeds only if we degrade ourselves to adolescent Americans' perception of world affairs, given the fact that most American teenagers still cannot tell Iraq on the map, per a recent opinion poll.

With its few scenes shot near the location in the United Arab Emirates instead of Saudi Arabia, The Kingdom tries authenticity and, yet, achieves mediocrity, particularly on the level of political discourse, interlaced with studio-atmospheric action scenes, putting it in good company with other silly recent American movies on the Middle East, such as Syriana.

In a realistic movie about terrorism in Saudi Arabia, we would not see a Saudi officer and his FBI friend stroll inside a crowded game arcade, where Saudi youth are seeing relishing their "kill American" games, to interview a high-placed al-Qaeda-turned informer, who explains his turnabout by alluding to torture: "Seventeen days without sleep will make you quit everything."

That is rather hilarious seeing how the previous scenes' panic by the Saudis about (over) protecting their American visitors suddenly gives way to the casual, unescorted trip to the informer in broad daylight. Indeed, small scrutiny can help expose the film's serious flaws, another being how quickly the discovery of an ambulance part at the crime scene is used to short cut the hunt for the terrorists' hideout, as if quick-paced dialogue can compensate for the lack of realistic clues.

Aside from its unimaginative plot and boring cliche about inter-agency disagreements, both in the US, between the angelic FBI and the not so angelic attorney general and incompetent US State Department, and in Saudi Arabia between the trustworthy and suspicious officers, The Kingdom recycles the stereotypes about "culture clash" and in particular the gender criticisms of Saudis, nowadays ritualistic in just about any Western fiction or documentary film on the oil kingdom that is the birthplace of Islam.

This aside, the female US agent never bothers to put on a headscarf and steps out of a badly-crashed vehicle without as much as a scar on her face. As expected in formula Hollywood movies, the American heroes survive the flying bullets, leaving a trail of dead Saudis behind as they fly home, mission accomplished, yet hardly in triumphalist mood, for they have all learnt a precious lesson in their quick tour to the kingdom. This is about the terrorist cancer growing where it is amputated, with a young generation of terrorists replacing the old ones who whisper to them, "Kill them all."

The movie's closing scene, cojoining this with the exact same line by Foxx uttered to another agent, supposedly reveals a disturbing fact - about both sides being locked in a closed, and hopeless, cognitive map mirroring each other. Yet, such small provocations, for the audience to ruminate about something other than an endless stream of violence on the screen, barely sit well with the movie's other, equally childish, bifurcations. "A lot of bad people out there?" Foxx's son asks him at the movie's beginning and the model-father agent nods affirmatively. Add this to the cult of FBI-worship, sure to be loved by Homeland Security.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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