Friday, September 21, 2007

Movie Review: The Kingdom

If I had to summarize Peter Berg's upcoming film The Kingdom in one sentence, it would be: "So good Jennifer Garner couldn't ruin it."

Before I dive into the meat of my review, here is a quick outline of the story. An attack similar to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and 2003 Riyadh compound bombing racks up huge death toll at a Western oil engineer enclave in Riyadh. Jamie Foxx plays the slick leader of an FBI terrorism task force that uses his bureaucratic wiles to get a himself and a small team (Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman) into Saudi Arabia to investigate.

The political and bureaucratic resistance that Mr. Foxx's team encounters in Riyadh becomes an interesting microcosm of the difficulties in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The Americans want to participate in the investigation and find the perpetrators. The Saudis keep Foxx's team at arm's length because they don't want to be seen by the Arab public as inviting Western paternalism.

In the end, Foxx makes a strong professional bond with a Saudi State Security colonel played by Paradise Now's Ashraf Barhoum that opens the right political doors for a energetic, joint Saudi-American investigation. The most gripping part of the film by far is a sequence where the U.S.-Saudi group battle to save a team member from a fate similar to Daniel Pearl.

While Foxx did a fairly good job, Barhoum's nuanced character really stands out in the film. In the same way that Foxx and Barhoum's relationship is a microcosm of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, Barhoum is microcosm of Saudi Arabia itself -- an earnestly pious nation that is being pulled apart by ineffectual leadership and an unyielding radical minority.

The best bit part goes to Jeremy Piven, who plays a stereotypically fast-talking, risk-averse deputy chief of mission for the U.S. embassy in Riyadh. Jennifer Garner even did a good job in her role as a quiet, conservatively-dressed forensic pathologist for the FBI. As my girlfriend said, Garner's performance was enhanced by the fact that she kept her enormous, uh, 'talent' underneath nondescript black T-shirts.

Altogether, The Kingdom is a great movie. Think of is as a far more subtle and less didactic version of Syriana. It is easily worth the price and hassle of seeing it on opening night (September 28th).

Oh and before you ask, the huge building used as the set for a Saudi palace is not actually a palace. It is the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi.

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