In 1999, protesters opposing the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference on American soil blockaded Seattle’s downtown. These demonstrators were trying peacefully to make their voices heard concerning the problems with conglomerate globalization. But peaceful protests became violent riots when anarchist groups took over, police brutality broke out, civil rights were defied, and mass illegal arrests were made. These events that occurred in late November were a rude awakening to many. Though the protests were overall successful in stopping the WTO conference, the events that transpired created much controversy over how the city reacted to the protesters. Many were appalled by the governmental response. Similar to the riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, the protests in Seattle have been an important part of history. And just as Haskell Wexler made Medium Cool (1969) about the DNC riots, budding director Stuart Townsend made Battle in Seattle (2007).
Irish actor, Stuart Townsend, successfully makes his directorial debut with this film. Townsend addresses the WTO conferences through the lens of many different people, all of whom are effected differently by the convention. There are the activists. These are the characters that have been organizing the peaceful protests against the WTO to raise awareness about the risks of globalization in Third World countries. There are the politicians. These are the ones who are at the heart of the convention, mainly Seattle’s mayor Jim Tobin (Ray Liotta). There are the policemen. The ones who are on the streets making sure that peace ensue. And lastly, there is the media, which is responsible for how the convention and protests are portrayed to the general public.
The meshing and crossing paths of each type of character is engaging but since there are so many important roles, none of the relationships among them get enough playing time. It seems that the audience is only allowed to go a little bit under the surface of many of the characters. Leader of the activists, Jay (Martin Henderson), is constantly fighting against corporation expansion, but also seems to be fighting something that is within him. The viewers (and even some of the other characters) learn what troubles Jay in snip-its, but never fully come to grips with what bothers him. Even when a reporter covering the convention turns sides and joins the protests, her actions seem somewhat half-hearted and the audience is not only left asking why she did this, but also wanting to know more about her. These characters and others’ stories are intriguing, but many of them are flat. They are little more than plot devices. A policeman’s wife, Ella (Charlize Theron), is attacked by his fellow officers, but her character’s purpose doesn’t go much further than that. She is simply a plot device to show another side of police brutality, to show that everyone was a target during the riots. Many of these character portrayals are only snapshots, a disadvantage to having so many characters.
But that’s not to say that aren’t any characters in the film that have meaning. Mayor Jim Tobin, the fictionalization of former Mayor Paul Schell, is continually at odds with how to save his city from violence while doing what is right. Often shot behind objects (obscured by glass, items on his desk, or someone else), Tobin struggles with his past as a Vietnam protester and his current political position. These shots make him appear as though he is lost behind a sort of barrier that constricts him from making proper decisions. He tells the protesters to “be tough on your issues, but be gentle on my town,” but when they don’t abide he calls in the National Guard to assuage the government’s nerves. On the other side of the issues is Ella’s husband, police officer Dale (Woody Harrelson), who is forced to patrol the streets though dealing with life-altering home issues. The audience sees Dale in heavy protective garb, wearing a helmet, and holding a billy club while crying. The discord of a powerful, strong man weeping is an emotion that resonates quite strongly. The image makes it clear that not everyone involved in the five-day protest wants to be there, not everyone agrees with what is being done, but still many have no choice.
The most poignant and heart-wrenching character though may be the one who has the least amount of screen time. Dr. Maric (Rade Sherbedzija), a physician representing Doctors Without Borders, depends on the WTO conference to inform and get support from the delegates so he can raise money for the prevention and treatment of disease in Third World countries. But as the activists work to stop the convention, Dr. Maric is left without an audience to plead to. His silent desperation is saddening. It’s an emotion that is furthered by the shot of Maric in is his empty lecture hall looking dolefully out the window at the protesters and rioters. They are making their point on the outside, while he is trying to make the same point on the inside.
It is more the composition of shots than the film’s characters that truly make the movie what it is. In order to keep the movie’s pace at a steady, heart-palpitating, and utterly nerve-racking rate, shots are never very long. Townsend is incessantly cutting from shot to shot in order to show many different types of action and perspective, but also to keep the viewers alert. The quickness of the camera imitates the high tensions, stress, and nerves of those involved - even the governmental officials in their offices with large desks and leather-bound books, move at a fast, anxious speed.
Another interesting technique Townsend employs is the use of actual footage from the 1999 protests. Just as other historical fiction films before it (such as Emilio Estevez’s Bobby ), Battle flawlessly weaves this live footage of the events into its storyline. This creates an even more urgent sense to the film. The viewers realize that what is being depicted fictionally actually occurred. Along with this emotional intensity created by the footage, realism is created with statistics. The film’s opening credits roll as a voice over explains what the WTO is and how it’s gotten to Seattle. The viewers are thrust into what they believe to be a illusory story, while all the while being constantly reminded that what is happening was, at one time, real. And though the audience sighs a breath of relief when the WTO conferences are officially canceled and the activists seem to have won, there is an ominous afterword. Words move menacingly across the screen reminding the viewers that the WTO still exists, that conglomerates are still ruining Third World countries, animals are still being killed, and these same protesters are still fighting an uphill battle.
Battle’s character’s may not be developed enough for our liking, but the emotion that trickles out of them along with the sentiments that the film’s cinematography creates is enough to make Townsend’s film a triumph. It’s a movie that should be seen as a reminder of not only what happened on the rainy streets of Seattle many years ago, but also as a reminder of the passion that protesters hold within them, even those in today’s political forum.