Review: The Kingdom
Watching the trailers for ‘The Kingdom’ over the past several months, I was curious about how the film would portray Saudi Arabia and Saudis. The film could have taken the low and easy road, pandering to stereotypes, and shown the Saudis as slavering jihadis looking forward to killing the infidel. It could have taken (and did to some extent) follow the trail of ‘Syriana’ [see my review here and Amir Taheri's here], claiming on the basis of old and mistaken stereotypes that ‘it’s all about oil’.
Instead, I was pleased to see that the film—opening in the US on Sept. 28—showed that while there are bad Saudis, there are also good and decent Saudis who care about their country, their religion, and justice. As the film was to be built around the terrorist bombing of an American residential compound in Riyadh, I was curious to see how close they would come to the reality I saw while working in the US Embassy in 2003.
The film carries a very strong sense of authenticity. The researchers did their homework when it came to finding the right imagery to convey the sense of time and place. Much of it was shot in Abu Dhabi, with some B-roll materials from Riyadh spliced in. The rest was filmed in ‘non-denominational’ deserts in the American Southwest and Washington, DC. The film was mostly realistic when it came to the bombings, but they are not the same as the compounds, really bombed in 2003. Then, my job had me visiting those compounds within 12 hours of the explosions. Bodies were mostly removed; there were still body parts and blood, shattered homes and cars, and glass and rubble everywhere. The film catches most of this but generally spares us the body parts.
‘The Kingdom’ is accurate in its portrayal of a sharp-elbowed FBI investigation team running headlong into the reluctant Saudi police. As the crime happened in Saudi Arabia, the police were not about to simply hand over the investigation to the FBI. The image of Saudis as obstructionists, with something to hide was developed in the aftermath of the 1998 bombing of the Saudi Arabian National Guard building in Riyadh, where US military advisors were assigned. Similar was the 1996 Al Khobar Towers bombing, when the FBI were kept out of the loop. The local police did not welcome the FBI’s attempt to take over the investigation, a reaction not unknown to American local police departments and itself the subject matter of other films.
In order to avoid spoilers, the rest of the review is below the fold. I haven’t compromised major plot development, but some of the early set-up is discussed.
The film, though, works from a dated template. The ‘rules’ as they applied in 1996 and 1998 had changed by 2003. In reality, as soon as they could fly inâ€”the next dayâ€”a team of about 35 FBI investigators were in Riyadh. These were a specialized group, designed to investigate bombings. They were professional. They did not (at least publicly) carry weapons. The women on the teamâ€”and there were severalâ€”knew better than to wear form-fitting T-shirtsâ€”apparently the only top in Ms. Garner’s wardrobeâ€”as their outerwear. They were also prepared to work cooperatively with their Saudi counterparts, whether from the police, Saudi Arabian National Guard (one of the 2003 compounds housed American and others on contract to the National Guard), and the Ministry of Interior. The Saudis, post-9/11, were also prepared to cooperate.
‘The Kingdom’ gets off to an iffy start, I think. The collage over which the opening credits run provides a brief history of Saudi Arabia and its relations with the US. I think it focuses inaccurately on oil. While oil is certainly an important aspect of the US-Saudi relation, it is far from the sole one and not necessarily the most important one. But the film certainly feeds the meme that it’s ‘all about oil’. Viewers needn’t worry about the film being ‘all about oil’, though. After the credits, the word never comes up again.
Probably the worst part of the film was its portrayal of the US State Department and its officers. Nothing new here: they’re tediously shown as ‘cookie-pushers’ who have yet to evolve backbones. That’s the standard stereotype, particularly from the political right, but it’s far from the reality. I won’t speak for all State officers; some actually are wimps. That’s not the case for most of them, though.
In the case of the 2003 Riyadh bombings, officersâ€”no matter their job descriptionsâ€”jumped in to help as they could. The bombings took place around 10:45 pm. I was at home watching AFRTS news, when I received a call from a Reuters reporter asking about the bombings. I called the Ambassador and Political Officer who were both starting to get calls from their sources. By 11:30, nearly every officer was at his/her desk or helping in the offices that were being inundated by new, emerging requirements. My Press Office took over 700 calls over a three-hour span from American and international media.
The events of the night were further complicated by the fact that Secretary of State Powell was scheduled to arrive in Riyadh at 1:00 pm the next day, for previously scheduled talks with the Saudis. It was critical to determine whether or not his visit should continue, given the danger of the bombings, the question of whether the attacks had finished, and the near-chaos that followed it. He decided to go through with his plans, but added a visit to one of the bombing sites. The security of the Embassy and American housing elsewhere in the city were a primary focus for all. It was a very long and sad day as various embassy staff learned which of their friends and acquaintances had died or been wounded in the attacks. It was also becoming apparent that officers’ families would soon be going home for safety.
The film really disparages the Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission, the ‘deputy ambassador’ as the position is sometimes called. Played by Jeremy Pivenâ€”you already know he’s going to be a spineless jerk with this casting-to-typeâ€”the character seeks only to have problems go away and has no interest in solving them. He projects PC-ness run amok. Even the worst DCM I’ve worked with had more guts than this.
By 2003, however, new protocols had been established between the FBI and State. State would work to ensure FBI access to sites, evidence, and suspects. Investigative teams would be of a manageable size and the agents would not bear arms unless specifically authorized to do so because of particular circumstances. The teams work under the leadership of the FBI’s Legal AttachÃ© and under the authority of the Ambassador. The LEGATTs, as they are called, know the territory and just what they can and cannot do. The film wanders into a bit of fantasy as its FBI team breaks command structures and simply shows up in Riyadh without authorization. The FBI is not noted for hot-doggers among its ranks.
All in all, this is a good film. It’s not the best action film you’ve ever seen and some of the intended laughs fall flat. There’s a lot of violence, but it’s not overly graphic. There’s lots of shooting and explosions, running around and fast car chases. But there’re also occasions in which the viewer is asked to think about the fact that it’s not only the victims who are human, but those who try to do their jobs in the midst of confusion, emotional turmoil, and the threat of further deadly attacks on them and their families. Here, the film shines.
This part of the story is carried by excellent acting by the principal actors. Jamie Foxx, heading the FBI’s team, and Ashraf Barhom, leading the Saudi police effort, both show the awkwardness in dealing with complete strangers, fighting against the stereotypes they carry in their own minds. Jason Bateman and Ali Suliman have perhaps the most subtle performances as, respectively an FBI agent who learns that ‘kick ass’ is not always the best procedure, and a Saudi police sergeant who puts duty to his country above all else. I think Chris Cooper isn’t asked to do much. I guess Jennifer Garner is there because the producers thought they needed some sort of female presence.
If you’re looking for a film that bashes Saudis or the Administration, this isn’t the film for you. If instead you want a film that accurately portrays the complexity of US-Saudi relations at both official and personal levels, then you don’t want to miss it.