Watching “Battle in Seattle” is like being jabbed in the belly with a police baton, and not in a good way. Written and directed rather ambitiously by the actor Stuart Townsend, who has never written or directed anything before, it uses fictional characters to tell a true story but gives us no reason to care about the people, their lives, or their political causes. The riots that occurred at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999 may well have been historically significant — but you wouldn’t know it from watching “Battle in Seattle,” which insists on telling us how important the issues are rather than showing us.
Townsend gives a cursory explanation of what the WTO is and tells us that many oppose it for its lax policies on human rights and labor standards. The details aren’t important to him, though. He seems to take it as a given that we already dislike the WTO, even though most viewers’ response to WTO is “WTF?” It’s a massive, complicated international organization that deals with stodgy, unsexy issues like trade and commerce, and I guarantee the vast majority of the audience isn’t nearly as interested in it as Townsend is. And if the point is that we SHOULD be interested in it, he fails to explain why.
Our heroes are the protesters, led by the devoted Jay (Martin Henderson), who lost a brother to the cause and is now single-mindedly dedicated to avenging his death. He is at the head of a huge, highly organized, somewhat mischievous group that aims to disrupt the three-day WTO meeting in downtown Seattle without using violence. He is assisted by the hard-nosed Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) and the easy-going Django (Andre Benjamin), the latter fulfilling the requirement that all movies shall have a Comical Sidekick.
The protests go down smoothly until they are marred by two things. First, the labor unions march against the WTO, too, and they have their own agenda separate from that of Jay’s group. Second, some anti-WTO anarchists join the movement and ignore Jay’s pleas that they behave civilly, choosing to smash windows instead. That gives the cops all the incentive they needed to start busting heads.
Oh, yeah. The cops. We’re supposed to care about them, too. The good cop is Dale (Woody Harrelson), whose wife Ella (Charlize Theron) is pregnant, which is screenwriting shorthand for “please sympathize with this character and her husband.” He is eager to follow his commanding officer’s orders, while young cop Johnson (Channing Tatum) wants to unleash hell on the dirty hippies who are clogging up the streets.
The inevitable fracas occurs, and Townsend deserves credit for executing some very large, logistically complicated riot scenes (though they are shot and edited so chaotically that it’s hard to tell who’s doing what to whom). But his tin ear for dialogue almost sinks the film single-handedly. Poor Ray Liotta, playing the city’s fretful mayor, is stuck in an office shouting trite lines like “The press would have a field day!” and “You’re gonna turn downtown into a war zone!” Then there’s Jay telling Lou, “You know nothing about me!,” to which she responds, as if reading from the script of a Lifetime movie, “I’ve been around men like you all my life.” And perhaps the most howlingly bad line in the entire film comes when Ella’s co-worker tells her, in reference to her impending motherhood, “You want adventure? You just signed up for the greatest adventure of all!”
Seriously, don’t you want to crack all these people in the skull with a nightstick?
Townsend’s fatal, fundamental flaw is that for all the yelling and fighting and posturing and debating, he never tells us why the WTO is so bad. He barely even explains what the WTO is. Late in the film, after the riots have stopped the conference and gotten worldwide news coverage, Django makes a joke about it: “Three days ago, nobody even knew what the WTO was. Now they still don’t know what it is, but at least they know it’s bad.” Hardy-har, funny joke, but guess what? You just summarized why the film is a failure. We’re supposed to be on your side and hate the WTO, but you never explain why. This is an “issue movie” that neglects to tell us what the issues are, which is sort of like making a comedy that doesn’t have any jokes. That’s a pretty serious mistake, don’t you think?
C- (1 hr., 40 min.; )