Actor Stuart Townsend makes a vivid filmmaking debut with “Battle in Seattle,” a fight-the-power drama that plunges us into the stirring and combustive atmosphere of the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations.
As a celebration of rebel spirit, the movie impresses. As a message-filled character tapestry, however, it’s clunky going.
Townsend has referred to “Medium Cool,” “Missing” and “The Battle of Algiers” as influences for this film, which also brings to mind Robert Altman’s site-specific character weavings and Ken Loach’s politically themed dramas, albeit palely. The setting is Seattle during the five days when demonstrators, citing the effect of World Trade Organization policies on democracies and the environment, flooded streets and shut down the WTO’s ministerial conference.
Via characters representing various parties, Townsend revisits the events.
Three protesters — leadership-skilled Jay (Martin Henderson), upbeat Django (Andre Benjamin) and cause-du-jour rebel Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) — are involved in the blockage of intersections, which prompts the cancellation of the conference’s opening ceremonies. Vandalism committed by “anarchists” infuriates the nonviolent Jay.
Riot cop Dale (Woody Harrelson) and pregnant wife Ella (Charlize Theron) symbolize police and innocent-bystander components (she gets hurt; he explodes).
Seattle’s fictitious Mayor Tobin (Ray Liotta) initially upholds free-speech rights but, pressured, shifts into state-of-emergency mode.
Newswoman Jean (Connie Nielsen), witnessing law-enforcement brutality in the chaos, is unable to remain neutral.
Seldom in conventional American cinema has political protest been so vibrantly and seriously considered. Mixing actual protest footage with fictional material, the Ireland-bred Townsend achieves sizzle.
He captures the concrete details (baking soda and water as treatment for tear-gassed eyes) and the theatrical and spontaneous elements of demonstrations. He conveys the incomparable exhilaration that, for those with activist DNA, accompanies taking to the streets for a cause.
Unfortunately, though, as in the similarly Altman-style “Bobby,” banal scenarios often eclipse sharper material.
As for the cast, the use of familiar players helps you quickly match face to cause, and Benjamin, in the comic-relief role, is especially charismatic, but the actors can’t do much with their one-note characters.
Battle in Seattle
Two and a half stars
Starring Martin Henderson, Andre Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron
Written and directed by Stuart Townsend
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes