The highlight of this film is over by the time it begins. A brief credit sequence outlines the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia in provocative, trenchant terms covering the Saudi nationality of Osama Bin Laden and most 9/11 hijackers to the entanglements between the US and its top politicians and the oil companies and the Saudis.
Then the movie opens and the last moments of complexity and signficance are over and it becomes a high-budget episode of “The A Team” crossed with “24” and a sort of “CSI: Riyadh” until a few minutes at the end try to tack on some larger meaning. It just shows how thin the material in the rest of the film is by contrast.
It is carefully constructed for maximum impact. Happy American families stationed in Saudi Arabia, mostly by oil companies, are relaxing in that most American of pastimes, a baseball game. And then an all-too-sickeningly familiar scenario unfolds, as a carefully orchestrated multi-stage terrorist attack, killing hundreds of people. Meanwhile, the man who planned it, watches from a balcony far away, filming the explosions.
Who has jurisdiction to investigate and respond? Legally, the Saudis have exclusive authority. As a matter of diplomacy, the United States does not want to interfere. But a movie-genically diverse group of FBI agents fly over to investigate, over the objections of the State Department and his Justice Department superiors.
Jamie Foxx is leader Ronald Fleury, and he is joined by canny cracker (Chris Cooper), a wisecracking newbie (Jason Bateman), and a tough but tender-hearted woman (Jennifer Garner). They are escorted by a sympathetic Saudi (Ashraf Barhom) and pestered by an obnoxious embassay aide (Jeremy Piven).
Director Peter Berg tries to show his mastery of the situation by even-handed assigment of good- and bad-guy roles on all sides and undercutting his shoot-em-up, just-in-time, climax with a final acknowledgement of the inextricability of the forces and tensions behind terrorism and corruption. His capable cast does their best to inject some character into all the bang bang. But it still comes across as arrogant, superficial and part of the problem, not part of the solution. A character is shown reading “The Koran for Dummies” as preparation for the investigation. The movie so mistrusts its audience that it tries to be “The Mideast Conflict for Dummies,” throwing a lot of gunfire and brutality on the screen to get us to learn something about Saudi Arabia and ending up losing not just credibility but interest as well.
Parents should know that this movie has very graphic violence, including a massive terrorist attack by suicide bombers that results in the death of a hundred civilians, including children, torture, and heavy artillery attacks, with explicit shots of gruesome injuries, bloody deaths, and dead bodies. Characters are in intense peril and many, many people are killed. Characters also smoke and use very strong language. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of strong, loyal, capable diverse characters.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we draw the line between diplomacy and law enforcement. How would the US respond to another country’s law enforcement officers coming to investigate a crime in the US? What do you think about the ending? What does it mean to say that tradition and modernity are in violent collision?