A mere couple of weeks after a polarizing Republican National Convention, it will be difficult for some of us to criticize a film like “Battle in Seattle.” For many, Stuart Townsend‘s ensemble fictionalization of the 1999 protests against the WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle may strike a welcome note, harkening back to a triumphant, nonviolent-turned-violent demonstration which caused — directly or indirectly — a collapse in trade negotiations that even some participants characterized as imbalanced. Townsend’s film portrays this moment as a victory for the antiglobalization movement (and the Left, broadly defined), an example of how public opinion, voiced loudly and peaceably, can effect great change in a world that too often seems governed by cronyism and corporate interest.
And yet, for all its good intentions and its inspirational advocacy for freedom of speech and assembly, “Battle in Seattle” remains a difficult film to get up and shout about. Approaching its subject with a neat idealism and packaging its political fervor in the most facile of forms, the film boasts a cast loaded with Hollywoods both new and old and wraps its message up with eye-rolling naivete. As such, it seems factory-built to inspire political activism in a young audience — a commendable enough intention — but its plotting is so obvious, its characters so thinly archetypal, that both the film’s logic and its effectiveness become highly questionable.
The ensemble cast of “Battle in Seattle” represents the various sides — pro and con — of the issue of protest equitably, if rather flatly. The band of young idealists comprises a range of character types and political causes: the passionate, rugged Jay (played by Australian actor Martin Henderson, of the underrated “Little Fish“), Michelle Rodriguez as a bitter loner, and Outkast’s Andre Benjamin as a sea-turtle-loving optimist who, once arrested, sings an a capella version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (the film’s obvious highlight). Meanwhile, there are the concurrent narratives of those less sympathetic to the cause of anticorporate activism: Woody Harrelson, a cop who just wants a quiet moment with Charlize Theron, his newly pregnant wife; Ray Liotta as the nervy, empty-headed, and entirely fictional Mayor Jim Tobin (presumably an effort to be kind to real-life mayor, Paul Schell); and hot stud Channing Tatum as a young fascist pig.
As the debut feature of Stuart Townsend (perhaps best known for his acting turns as “Queen of the Damned” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen“), the film is at least reasonably orderly where it might have been merely chaotic, credibly meshing dramatic reenactments and news footage of the actual events. But though the film is filled with interesting tidbits about the protocol of protesting — a water and baking soda solution, poured in one’s eyes, is a handy remedy for tear-gas burn — it tellingly fails to represent the real baddies here: the WTO fat-cats themselves. This is because “Battle in Seattle” is not actually about Seattle, nor about the WTO, nor about any of the hugely important issues raised by the protestors or delegates throughout the movie — issues like poverty and AIDS in developing nations and the plight of endangered species.
These were and continue to be crucial issues, but the film only seems to demonstrate how the incompetence and heavy-handedness of the law enforcement officials, rather than the dedication and righteousness of any political faction, rendered the WTO’s negotiations impotent and futile. “Battle in Seattle” represents that people “can be heard,” regardless of what they’re saying and why they’re saying it, offering only a few awkward reconciliations and romantic clinches to tidily sew up its diminutive melodramas rather than any real insight into or step forward for issues of pressing international concern. If this film is to inspire political engagement in young people generally, so much the better; but there is also a lot of important and specific work to be done.