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The Kingdom

Action Mixed with Politics Makes for Muddled Storytelling

Part procedural, part action with contemporary politics as a backdrop, The Kingdom is a semi-successful film directed by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown, Very Bad Things) and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan that unsurprisingly raises fascinating, if no less perplexing questions, about the “special relationship” between the Saudi Arabia, one of the richest, oil-producing countries in the world and the United States, whose presence in the Middle East even before the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 was, at best, controversial.

As a quick-hitting montage reminds us during the credits sequence, 15 out of the 19 hijackers who attacked the United States on 9-11 were Saudi Arabians. If all that seems too much for a Hollywood film, unfortunately it is, but Berg and Carnahan deserve at least some credit for forceful, if no less problematic, storytelling.

After a terrorist bombing at a Western housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, kills several hundred Americans, including women and children, American officials find themselves in a quandary: to enter Saudi Arabia and investigate the bombing would cause internal dissension within Saudi Arabia, a tightly repressed, authoritarian monarchy. To do nothing, however, seems unacceptable, but working within diplomatic channels seems to have little or no effect.

Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx), head of a counter-terrorism unit within the FBI and friend to a man who died in the bombing, works every lever available to get into Saudi Arabia, up to and including thinly veiled threats aimed at a Saudi official. He finally gets his way, but he can only bring three other agents, can stay in Saudi Arabia for only five days, and must be escorted by armed guards wherever he goes.

In Saudi Arabia, Fleury and his team, Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), are housed together in a gymnasium and given Colonel Faris al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) as their guide and liaison with the Saudi government. At first, al-Ghazi plays caretaker, ensuring Fleury and his crew go only where the Saudi government wants them to go, but when Sykes discovers a key piece of evidence at the bombing site and video footage of the bombing is leaked on to the internet, al-Ghazi begins to see Fleury and his crew as allies in the investigation to find the terrorist cell, their leader, Abu Hamza, and stop the cell before it can strike a second time against the Americans or sympathetic Saudis.

In a film set mostly in the Muslim world, The Kingdom has space for exactly one sympathetic Arab character: al-Ghazi. The other Arab characters are either carelessly brutal or ruthlessly authoritarian; princes or military officers, religious extremists, or indistinct faces in a crowd. Alas, if you want a balanced, nuanced look at Saudi Arabia, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

As a director, Peter Berg certainly knows his way around set pieces, none more engrossing than the opening scene set in the American compound or the chaotic firefight in the Suweidi district that closes the film. The Kingdom moves forward from scene to scene by focusing primarily on Fleury and his team's investigation and the seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic and cultural roadblocks they encounter in a Muslim country run by an authoritarian regime that also happens to be the United States strongest ally in the Middle East. That’s not to say that The Kingdom doesn’t have a message. It does, but by the time we hear it, it feels either too easy or dangerously simplistic.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars