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Talk About a Block Buster

On location: N.Y. falls into the hands of 'Enemies' for one of the biggest films ever shot in the city.

June 21, 1998|John Clark | John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — As Denzel Washington prepares to be blown off his feet, director Ed Zwick, in one of his typical asides, says, "This film was inspired by the last two lines of Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach.' "

For those who have forgotten those lines or, more likely, never learned them: "Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight/Where ignorant armies clash by night."

"Action!" yells Zwick.

Fingers or earplugs in ears, the crew members of "Against All Enemies" watch as a mortar goes off and Washington is pelted with newspaper, cork and silicon. He falls backward, his landing cushioned by a rubber mat that a set decorator has tweaked to match the surrounding asphalt.

"Cut!" Zwick says.

Zwick explains that after this scene--a bus explosion that occurs during the first third of the movie--Washington's character, an FBI agent, suffers from recurring bouts of tinnitus, which is associated with ringing of the ears, loss of balance and nausea. After the initial trauma, these effects can also be induced by stress. The things you learn on an Ed Zwick set.

"This piece is so cerebrally complex," says the film's co-producer, Lynda Obst, who might be talking about Zwick himself. He once brought her a book of John Donne's metaphysical poems. None of them actually applied to the film. He just wanted her to read them.

Zwick's homework for the cast has been a little more goal-oriented. He gave co-star Annette Bening John Le Carre's "The Little Drummer Girl" for insights into her character (a CIA agent), and she also met a female CIA case officer. Tony Shaloub, who plays Washington's partner, had to learn smatterings of Lebanese and immerse himself in Mideast politics. Washington studied for his role by becoming familiar with several FBI agents.

Zwick himself read 100 books and consulted with Justice Department officials and people involved in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation. Jeff Beatty, a former member of the Delta Force, is on set to oversee the dialogue and action for verisimilitude.

To what end? "Against All Enemies" is a sort of "What if?" movie, based on the premise that a terrorist campaign in New York City prompts officials to invoke martial law and apply the new anti-terrorist laws that are now on the books. One of the main themes here is that some of them are of troubling constitutionality. Complicating matters is the rivalry between the players in this drama, the FBI and the CIA, who have an ongoing battle over turf and methodology, also involving the rule of law. And then the Army steps in.

"We anthropomorphize the conflict," says Obst, meaning Washington (FBI), Bening (CIA) and, in a small but pivotal part, Bruce Willis (Army). "She has no respect for [Washington's] procedure and the flat-footed way the FBI goes about its business. He has no respect for the illegal way [the CIA] operates domestically and their complete disregard for American rule of law."

According to Beatty, the agencies have different agendas too. The CIA is in the intelligence gathering business. The FBI is in the business of jailing people. This conflict is played out in a dispute between Washington and Bening over how to handle a Lebanese informer, played by French-Tunisian actor Sami Bouagila.

There's more, much more, to this scenario, but Zwick, who's capable of finding nuances in almost anything, is quick to point out that "this isn't a tract. It's a thriller. I'm trying to put butts in the seats. I'm trying to have my cake and eat it."

What would Matthew Arnold have said?

"Against All Enemies" is one of the biggest films ever shot in New York. They've shut down the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges--and 42nd Street, twice. At one point, they filmed on the streets 24 days in a row. After nine weeks of shooting, Obst says she is no longer sure where the set ends and the city begins.

"When you lock down a street like this, you start thinking you're always in a lock-down and you walk down the street with your portable phone and get run over," Obst says. "It gives you the feeling of cinematic immunity that's very dangerous to your health."

Today the street in question is in Brooklyn, at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. It was here that the bus was blown up. Now, in the topsy-turvy scheduling typical of movie-making, they are shooting the scene before the explosion, just as earlier they had been shooting the aftermath, when Washington is blown off his feet.

Pre-tinnitus, Washington looks very together in a black trench coat. He is talking on a cell phone, negotiating with the hostage-takers on the bus. Beside him are Shaloub and Bening. Behind him is an armada of New York City Police Department patrol cars with their lights spinning.

"I understand that you don't want to talk to me," he says as Shaloub translates his words into Lebanese on another phone. "But are you willing to listen?"

Washington stumbles over a line. Then he does it again. He's annoyed.

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