Review: The Kingdom

Do not go into The Kingdom expecting to come out with a Hollywood version of how the US involvement in Saudi Arabia should end. Peter Berg’s new film is full of hard questions and not so easy answers and sheds a little light into the dark corner that is our understanding of what’s happening in the Middle East. At least, that’s what they want you to think.

The film opens with an incredibly beautiful graphic-based history of oil in Saudi Arabia and the United States’ interest in it. According to the film, we Americans were pretty much there from day one, keeping ourselves vested in the outcome of all the infighting and back-stabbing. We get a brief, simplistic look at how terrorism might have evolved out of the events of the sixties and seventies and how those events led to September 11, 2001. Needless to say, by the time the opening credits are over, the whole audience is in a state of upheaval. We’re tense and anxious and really want some relief.

That relief comes in the form of a softball game held in the American compound. This image is juxtaposed with that of FBI Team Leader Ronald Fluery (Jamie Foxx) who is participating in career day at his son’s school. That relief doesn’t last long. Before you know what’s happening, a pair of bad guys in stolen Saudi police uniforms start spraying the ball game with bullets. People are hurt and dying and just when you think the carnage can’t get any worse… it does.

From this point forward, the film switches focus to the American FBI team, lead by Fleury, that gets special permission, against the Attorney General’s explicit orders, to spend five days examining the blast crater – in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Once they are in the country, we begin to see the differences between our own culture and that of our allies who hate us. It is also at this point that Berg’s film starts to get bogged down in its own dichotomous nature. Berg, who made his directorial debut with the blackly comic Very Bad Things and cemented his reputation as the go-to-guy for All-American storytelling with Friday Night Lights, is just a little out of his league here. It almost seems as if he doesn’t know what kind of film he wants to make, offering up his supporting cast to the stereotype gods.

He’s got bomb expert Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) supplying copious amounts of gallows humor while forensic expert Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) is given the task of being the one with a heart. It seems like the only real relationship is the one between Fluery and his Saudi counterpart, Colonel Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), but even that sincerity doesn’t last long since it quickly becomes a matter of Al-Ghazi as the representative of the “good” Arab, the one we’re supposed to identify with so we can understand his plight and discover that hey, they’re not that different from us. Either in humanity or its destruction, the film sets up the parallel that the United States and Saudi Arabia are more similar than either side would wish. What it never does, though, is give us any reason for the actions or their causes beyond the opening overview.

We can speculate all we want about cause and effect but in the end, all we’re given is one set of actions. We’re given a well-made, well-intentioned thriller that side-steps our geopolitical responsibility in favor of visceral empathy.

(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)

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