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MOVIE REVIEW

Against something or other in 'Battle'

September 26, 2008|Kenneth Turan | Times Movie Critic

They call it "Battle in Seattle," but it's safe to say that the mayhem that took place in that city's streets over five days in 1999 does not have the name recognition for most Americans of Gettysburg, Iwo Jima or even Bunker Hill. Stuart Townsend's new film attempts to change all that, with mixed results.

Previously known as an actor, Townsend was determined to make his writing and directing debut with a film that combined entertainment with social relevance. The 1999 Seattle event, when about 40,000 protesters caused the cancellation of the first high-level World Trade Organization conference to be held in the U.S., seemed a good bet to do both.

Townsend's sincerity, his admiration for the idealism of the people behind the anti-WTO protests, is never in doubt, but combining drama with historical re-creation is frankly a challenge his filmmaking skills are not up to. On both sides of the camera, "Battle in Seattle" gives what happened the feeling of a children's crusade.

The first problem "Battle in Seattle" has is that outside of those who are in it and those who protest against it, few people know exactly what the World Trade Organization is, what it does or how it operates. Townsend attempts to remedy this with a brief introduction outlining the information in a snappy way, but the reality is that when unidentified talking heads say the WTO stands for "money values ruling over human values," we simply have to take that on faith.

A larger concern is that, whereas Townsend has said repeatedly that he wants his film to succeed as dramatic entertainment, this is considerably simpler said than done. Perhaps not surprisingly, it has proved more doable to re-create the on-the-ground feeling of the event than to people it with convincing characters.

Two of "Battle in Seattle's" protagonists meet cute the day before the protests begin, both part of a team hanging an anti-WTO banner on one of the city's construction cranes. He's Jay (Martin Henderson), one of the leaders of the protest, and she's Lou (Michelle Rodriguez), a woman with a bit of anarchy in her past.

Gradually we meet the rest of Jay's leadership team, including the free-spirited Django (Andre Benjamin of the music group OutKast) and the conflicted lawyer Sam (Jennifer Carpenter). They're determined to stop the conference, but they want to do it nonviolently.

On the other side of the issues is the city's mayor, played by Ray Liotta. A former anti-Vietnam protester, the mayor seems OK with the prospect of dissent but only because he thinks it won't succeed. "Be tough on your issues," he says in one of the script's few good lines, "but be gentle on my town."

Also fated to become involved in the protests are a carefully selected group of individuals, including a TV news reporter who thinks she cares only about getting a story (Connie Nielsen), a sensitive Seattle cop (Woody Harrelson) and his pregnant wife (Charlize Theron). Then there are the good guy delegates to the conference, a representative from Doctors Without Borders (Rade Sherbedzija) and an official from a beleaguered African state (Isaach De Bankole). All will be affected by the protests, invariably in ways they did not anticipate.

In fact, nothing about the battle in Seattle went the way anyone thought it would. The protesters turn out to be cannier, more numerous and better organized than the city anticipated, and the mayor comes under increased pressure to use stronger tactics. The police eventually go in stronger still, using tear gas and cracking heads, while the peaceful protesters get infiltrated by a few anarchists who like nothing better than causing trouble.

It's easy to see why Townsend was attracted to this inherently dramatic situation, but the characters he's put on screen feel less like real people than like entities created to either make plot points or stand in for specific positions that need to be represented.

"Battle in Seattle" does much better at capturing the physical, on-the-street feeling of the event. Mixing some nine minutes of real footage with re-creations shot by Barry Ackroyd and edited by Fernando Villena, the film convincingly brings the look of those chaotic days to the screen.

As to the rest, though "Battle in Seattle" claims to be an uplifting film detailing how the power of the people brought the oligarchy down, it plays more like an epic of futility and cross-purposes. When one of the protagonists says that what most Americans will take away from the protests is the notion that "I don't know what the WTO is, but I know it's bad," he is summing up the film's inevitable effect as well.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

"Battle in Seattle." MPAA rating: R for language and some violence. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In limited release.

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