Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Kingdom - Saudi Arabia Jennifer Garner Style

I recently rented the movie, The Kingdom , starring Jamie Fox, Jennifer Garner, and Chris Cooper. The movie plot is simple: There are terrorists in the Middle East (particularly Saudi Arabia). Motivated by oil and Islamic extremism they have attacked U.S. patriots a number of times in the past. Given this hindsight, how would we respond to such an event if it happened tomorrow?

That's the objective version. Let me begin by saying that this is a great action movie. I love exhilarating thrill rides that are filled with enough modern day references to make the movie smack of headline news, but I what really wondered as I watched this film was: How do the Saudis feel about this? I watched the American FBI heroes in this film cowboy their way through the mean streets of Riyadh, exposing the despicable underbelly of Arabian society. They were tough, tactical, and often better reasoned than their Saudi detective counterparts who were there to protect and assist the Americans. Man! They were such awesome FBI agents!

However, what the movie insinuated was that while much of the Saudi Kingdom's leadership was unsympathetic to the terrorists that rallied among their people, the Saudis were utterly incapable of dealing with terrorism or criminal detective work as well as Americans. Only the four FBI agents had the cognitive wherewithal to make the startling realizations that ultimately led to the take down of a powerful terrorist cell operating in Riyadh. The Saudi detectives working side-by-side with them were not; they were always about a half a step behind. This frustrates me particularly as the movie makes a very sincere effort to humanize the Saudis, but by diminishing the intellectual aspect of the Saudi characters, the movie does itself a disservice. In fact, this is particularly disconcerting since the most heroic character in the movie is arguably Col. Faris Al-Ghazi, a Saudi police office.

The movie also presents some other very interesting facts. It begins with an opening sequence recapping in fast paced slide show fashion each of the historical frustrations that have tainted American perception of Saudi Arabia. This scene culminates with a chart comparing American oil consumption with Saudi oil production, each being the greatest in its respective category. This chart is then digitally morphed into a flash-style animation of the twin towers being rammed by a 747. It's a hard reality; eleven of the hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis. Even so, when we're so dependent on the supply of Saudi oil and Saudi Arabia's direct influence over OPEC I must say that movies like this one probably don't bode well for diplomacy.

That's what I don't like. Let's talk about what I did like. The portrayal of culture clash is very well accomplished. While Jennifer Garner's character, Special Agent Mayes, lands in Saudi Arabia with a complete disdain for how she expects to be treated as a woman, on more than one occasion Col. Al-Ghazi shows a deep sense of deference for her position as a woman. Thus, we see two sides to the coin: strict Islamic laws concerning women's freedoms as individuals juxtaposed with an obvious sense that, in spite of law, women still maintain a valued position in society. This was very interesting. It made the viewer think. In addition, I was very approving of the end of the movie; Special Agent Fleurry (Jamie Foxx) and the terrorist cell leader are shown to have both had a similarly unfortunate attitude. We learn that when the news initially hit that one of Fleurry's friends has been killed he had comforted Mayes by whispering "We're gonna kill 'em all." In this same ending scene, we learn that as the leader of the terrorists lay dying, he whispers to his grandson almost the exact same, "Do not fear my child. We are going to kill them all."

The hatred expressed in that final sequence grabs your attention. It forces the audience to divorce away prejudice and any preconceived sensibilities about "the issues" and forces one stark realization: oil is important, the tensions between the Muslim and Non-Muslim world can be thick, but truly nothing can be won and no peace will be found until ignorance and hatred are brushed aside. Additionally, while energy demands of the modern world are a technically inclined matter of survival, the technical and mechanical necessity of energy cannot be allowed to galvanize us against the perception of the humanity that intersects every level disjoint that make up the current energy market. Go watch the movie. It will make you think.


Bart Kay said...

Through the Saudi grapevine, I was told that a lot of the script had to be rewritten to be more "Saudi" friendly. Several Saudi government officials have had some say in the script. I'm only wondering what the film would have turned out if there was absolutely no Saudi input.

S. Ryan Newcomb said...

I have wondered about that myself. For more information regarding the way the movie was received in the Middle East you might try wikipedia as a good jump point: