FILM REVIEW 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
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
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 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
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
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.