The Kingdom (2007)

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The Kingdom
Dir. Peter Berg
Premiered at Edinburgh August 22, 2007

In the 2010s, director Peter Berg has come to be known as an auteur of ripped-from-the-headlines prestige dramas (all starring Mark Wahlberg) that nevertheless fail to attract either accolades or disdain. The Kingdom was only loosely inspired by real events, but you could be excused from thinking otherwise based on its reception by critics of the time. The media was hungry for social commentary on the War on Terror, and the back half of 2007 promised to deliver the goods, but, as we shall soon learn, only The Kingdom came close.

In 2007, Berg was just a journeyman director, but The Kingdom was unquestionably aided, in both its prestige and its best qualities, by the involvement of Michael Mann as producer, from longtime Mann collaborator Jamie Foxx in the starring role to the movie’s slick/instantly dated introduction, in which the entire history of modern Saudi Arabia is laid out in a rapid-fire pop-documentary style (unfortunately, it’s also nearly four minutes long).

The Kingdom purports to explore the inherent paradox of the titular nation in which takes place: established on the basis of religious fundamentalism yet sustained by fabulous wealth from the oil trade, few nations are better at cultivating their own enemies. In the film, this comes to a head when terrorists posing as police massacre civilians in an American compound in Riyadh, then come back to wipe out the survivors and first responders.

In the aftermath, FBI counterterrorism expert Ronald Fleury (Foxx) convinces the Saudis to let him bring his crack team of Special Agents (Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, and Chris Cooper) to fly over and investigate the attack before it becomes too late to find the bad guys– but only for five days, under the strict supervision of a local police officer (Ashraf Barhom) who is himself held back by a corrupt and distrustful bureaucracy. Everyone knows they’re lucky just to have that, as the very presence of US officials on Saudi soil could undermine public faith in the monarchy and plunge the nation into civil war.

At its best, The Kingdom is an energetic, compelling Michael Mann detective story with a wonderfully compelling cast: Fleury’s camaraderie with his team, and his burgeoning friendship with his Saudi counterpart, are as totally believable and extremely  watchable. Would that this were the entirety of the movie; unfortunately the final cut is overloaded with extraneous flourishes that serve little purpose except to keep the picture’s runtime at a respectable 111 minutes: characters are initially introduced with a subtitle showing their name and occupation, benefitting no one and distracting from relevant dialogue. As a US diplomat/bearer of exposition, Jeremy Piven blatantly attempts to inflate his performance by imbuing it with his usual shit-eating smarm. Interspersed scenes depicting the film’s villain Abu Hamza (Hezi Saddik) only detract from the sense of mystery that the plot is trying to build around him, which concludes in some ill fated faux-profundity in the film’s closing moments.

The film additionally runs into trouble when it attempts to inject politics into its narrative. Not the politics of Saudi Arabia– in a sense, The Kingdom is political speculative fiction, but it’s entirely credible– but rather the feeble attempts at partisanship under the guise of inter-agency squabbling. In a time when the US Presidency and Justice Department actually are recklessly undermining the FBI in an attempt to consolidate political power, the appeal resonates, but it still has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, appearing late in the first act and never again.

By the film’s end, moments like these reduce The Kingdom from “gripping” to “just good enough.” But at the very least, as we shall soon discover, it towers over its similarly-minded contemporaries.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Fleury and Mayes (Garner) debate the skills of Kobe Bryant.

How Did It Do?
It’s surprising that positive reviews of The Kingdom so willingly ascribed to it a timeliness that it may or may not have possessed, considering how lukewarmly it was received by critics and audiences. It’s $86.7 million gross failed to justify its $70 million budget. Critics were all over the place– some, ironically echoing the film’s most ardent boosters, disparaged the action and characters for being too enjoyable, others found the periphery wanting as I did (critics in the Arab world were similarly divided, but for different reasons). It’s a good cop movie, and it should have been content to be just that.

Next Time: Atonement

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