One for the Good Guys
An action thriller that approaches reality.
Oct 8, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 04 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Unfortunate moviegoers who have suffered through Hollywood's recent efforts to make geopolitical sense of the Middle East may spend some of the running time watching this new suspense thriller, The Kingdom, with a sense of looming dread. Surely, any moment, there will be a scene in which it is revealed that the bombing of an American housing compound in Saudi Arabia--the central event in The Kingdom--was not the work of Islamofascist terrorists but rather of an evil oil company. Or the U.S. government. Or militant Christians brilliantly disguised in burnooses who are killing Americans to try and start a holy war with Muslims that will hasten the End of Times.
Surely the oleaginous attorney general who tries unsuccessfully to block an FBI team's trip to Riyadh to investigate the bombing will be shown furtively contacting his friends at Halliburton, giving them the location and coordinates of his employees so that they can be killed. Surely the extremely decent FBI director, who insists against the attorney general's wishes on trying to get to the bottom of the bombing, will be waylaid in a Washington parking garage by natty thugs in Zegna suits who will dispatch him with an assassin's bullet accompanied by the mild "phhhf"of a silencer.
Surely the conspiracy will go as high as the president, or perhaps even higher--to the vice president!
Such is the nature of present-day geopolitical thrillers. The bad guys appear to be sworn enemies of the United States, but in the fullness of time we discover the truth behind the Big Lie: The United States is the sworn enemy of everyone else, the master puppeteer pulling the strings while all others stand around helpless and powerless before the might of the Omnipotent Ugly American.
The great surprise of The Kingdom is that it does not take this approach at all--which is why, among other things, it is going to be embraced by Americans who will be thrilled by its unapologetic depiction of a heroic crew of stateside good guys going into Saudi Arabia in pursuit of those who slaughter innocent Americans in Allah's name. It evokes not Syriana or Three Kings or The Bourne Ultidentipremacy, but rather gritty police procedurals of the 1970s like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (about a subway hijacking in Manhattan), Dog Day Afternoon (about a hostage-taking in Queens), or The New Centurions (about the private lives of Los Angeles cops).
The Kingdom was clearly inspired by the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing and the unprecedented degree of cooperation shown by the Saudi government in its immediate aftermath, when FBI forensic teams were permitted to scour the grounds in search of evidence. The team we see in The Kingdom has a personal motivation: One of their own, a universally beloved FBI agent, is among those killed. In the movie's first third, team leader Jamie Foxx pulls off a skillful bank shot to get his squad into Riyadh. The middle deals with the frustrations of trying to do police work in a police state. And in the heart-pounding final half-hour, the team finds itself under extreme duress in a Riyadh slum.
This is the fourth feature film made by director Peter Berg, and it moves him into Hollywood's first rank. The Kingdom is remarkably crisp and satisfying, and even more important for a suspense thriller, perfectly paced. Berg is a very good actor himself who knows how to get the best out of his cast. Jamie Foxx turns out to be a terrific action movie star, and it's exciting to see the wonderful Chris Cooper emerge from the slough of purse-lipped despond into which he has sunk in his recent movies and chew some of the very interesting scenery (Abu Dhabi doubles for Saudi Arabia).
But by far the most memorable piece of acting in this film is a two-minute turn by a most surprising performer: country music superstar Tim McGraw. He plays a furious, grieving survivor of the attack, and (as Pauline Kael once said of Martin Scorsese's cameo in Taxi Driver) he brings such controlled intensity to the part that he burns a hole through the screen. McGraw made his acting debut in Berg's Friday Night Lights with a frightening and vivid portrait of an abusive alcoholic. I hope he and Berg are looking for a vehicle in which McGraw can take center stage; he might be the first singing star since Bette Midler to outshine his own recording career with his acting work.