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Battle in Seattle

A Passionate Polemic for the Progressive Cause

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Battle in Seattle, an Altman and Haggis-inspired film written and directed by actor-turned filmmaker Stuart Townsend (Chaos Theory, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Queen of the Damned), is a powerful, if occasionally simplistic, fictionalization of the five days of protests and demonstrations (and later riots) that upstaged the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) conference in Seattle. Mixing video footage shot during the protests and demonstrations with footage shot specifically for Battle in Seattle and characters based on real-world analogues, Townsend has crafted a remarkably assured debut.

Battle in Seattle follows Jay (Martin Henderson), an environmental and protest organizer with a painful backstory; Lou (Michelle Rodriguez), an anarchist-rebel and animal rights activist new to Jay’s crew and Jay’s potential romantic interest; Django (André Benjamin, a.k.a. Outkast’s Andre 300), Jay’s best friend and fellow organizer; Sam (Jennifer Carpenter), an environmentalist, friend, and legal advocate; Dale (Woody Harrelson), a Seattle cop; Ella (Charlize Theron), Dale’s pregnant wife; Johnson (Channing Tatum), a hot-headed cop; Jim Tobin (Ray Liotta), the mayor of Seattle; Dr. Maric (Rade Serbedzija), a Doctors Without Borders representative at the WTO conference; and Jean (Connie Nielsen), a TV reporter covering the demonstrations for a local station.

While Townsend’s left-leaning politics are clear from the credits sequence on (an animated intro to the WTO and what, in Townsend’s eyes, it stands for, most of it negative), he struggles to make each character sympathetic regardless of their politics. The mayor’s attempt to strike a balance between the civil and constitutional rights of the protesters and the conference attendees’ right to hold their meetings unimpeded ultimately fails, but it’s a noble, laudatory attempt nonetheless. Likewise with Jay, an environmentalist dedicated to non-violent protest. Neither the mayor nor Jay account for so-called “black bloc” protesters who try to provoke the police into a violent response (they succeed). In the character of Dr. Maric, Townsend also shows an alternative to mass protests, demonstrations, and violence, a doctor attempting to alter the WTO’s priorities from the inside out.

Unfortunately, Townsend’s screenplay relies too heavily on overly familiar, clichéd character arcs (e.g., the pregnant woman caught in the middle of the protests, the volatile, erratic cop, the protester with a backstory full of pain and loss, the reporter who loses her self-interested cynicism in covering the police response to the protests) to manipulate our sympathies from authority figures like the mayor or the riot cop to the protesters. Townsend’s decision to include Django, a wise and noble African-American character (what Spike Lee once called the “Magical Negro”) is, even under the most favorable interpretation, questionable. That Django seems more concerned about endangered turtles more than human rights or general environmentalism makes him look frivolous (intentionally or not), an easy subject of derision, and all too often, unnecessary comic relief.

Townsend also resorts to an upbeat, “up with people” message that seems both naïve and overly optimistic. Townsend believes in organized mass protest and the ability of mass protests to force change in political institutions. Recent history in the United States and around the world, however, suggests mass protests and demonstrations aren’t sufficient for social and political change. Internal pressures seem to be necessary as well. Townsend suggests as much in the figure of Dr. Maric and an African representative, but could have gone further in linking the two elements. Ultimately, Battle in Seattle is a promising debut by a talented filmmaker worth following, regardless of what project he pursues next. It is a passionate, if flawed, anti-globalization polemic, a celebration of mass action and protest and, in the final analysis, a call for progressive activism.