- Rated R
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All photos © Redwood Palms Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
s a high school student with seemingly more important things to do than keeping up with current affairs, I was never aware of the 1999 Seattle riots until now. Of course, seeing as how the media-dubbed Battle in Seattle has been credited as the precursor to every anti-WTO protest since then, it was only a matter of time before someone made a film about it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s a foreigner behind the camera, but while Irish actor-turned-director Stuart Townsend’s docudrama doesn’t waste any time in choosing sides, it’s still mostly unbiased in its representation of everyone involved. That may seem like a copout to some, but it’s the main reason why “Battle in Seattle” ultimately succeeds as an eye-opening dramatization of the tense five-day event.
It’s November 29, 1999 and a group of nonviolent activists (led by Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, André Benjamin and Jennifer Carpenter) has taken to the streets of Seattle for a peaceful protest of the World Trade Organization’s biannual Ministerial Conference. The city’s mayor (Ray Liotta) knows about the planned protests, and in an attempt to save face, openly supports their right to free speech as long they don’t break any laws. The protestors comply, but when a small group of anarchists begins destroying city property, the mayor has no choice but to call in the National Guard. Meanwhile, police officers (Woody Harrelson and Channing Tatum) are ordered to disperse the groups using tear gas, but when that fails to drive away the crowds, they're forced to resort to more violent behavior.
Weaved into the main story are subplots involving characters that have been directly affected by the riots – like a pregnant woman (Charlize Theron) injured on her way home from work; a TV anchor (Connie Nielsen) enticed into joining the protest; and an AIDS researcher (Rade Serbedzija) whose potentially world-changing presentation is delayed – but none of their stories is as compelling (or as well-developed) as that of the activists. Martin Henderson and Michelle Rodriguez’s characters, in particular, are probably the most interesting of the bunch, since they’re involved in just about every major event throughout the course of the protest. The opening scene – where they're suspended from a dock crane hundreds of feet in the air so that they can hang a protest banner – may feel out of place in the otherwise grounded (no pun intended) events that follow, but it’s exactly the kind of setpiece that Townsend needs to hook the audience – and it does just that.
Despite the great ensemble cast that he's has assembled, however, there’s not a single noteworthy performance to be found. The actors all do a fine job with the limited time they’re given, but the main star of the film seems to be the riot itself, which is competently captured using a mix of Townsend’s coverage and stock footage from the riots. Someone like Liotta (whose mayor is essentially a good guy in a bad situation) might have been able to better develop his character if he had more than ten minutes to do so, but it also wouldn’t have increased the effectiveness of the story if he had. Whether or not this is a story that anyone actually cares about remains to be seen, but regardless of its impact on the current political climate, “Battle in Seattle” is still a story worth telling, and it’s a story well told.