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The Celluloid Kingdom


Editor's Note

You have probably already heard about "The Kingdom" movie that opens today in the United States. What is it about? "An elite FBI team has come to Saudi Arabia to catch a killer," according to Universal Studios extensive advertising campaign over the past few weeks.

The film presents a small piece of the generations old US-Saudi relationship but will inevitably provide a lasting image of for many theatergoers about the current complexities of bilateral efforts, such as law enforcement cooperation and the war on terror. As one correspondent who saw the sneak preview told us, "This movie will be a cultural phenomenon," noting, it "introduces a Saudi hero for the first time in American movies."

Today SUSRIS is pleased to give you a preview of the movie based on snapshots from the makers of "The Kingdom," excerpts from an interview with director Peter Berg, and abstracts of movie reviews. We look forward to seeing the movie and hope you'll share your impressions with other SUSRIS readers by sending your comments to < info@SUSRIS.org > 

Don't forget the popcorn.



[From "The Kingdom" Official Web Site]


Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx leads an all-star ensemble in a timely thriller that tracks a powder-keg criminal investigation shared by two cultures chasing a deadly enemy ready to strike again in The Kingdom.

When a terrorist bomb detonates inside a Western housing compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, an international incident is ignited. While diplomats slowly debate equations of territorialism, FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Foxx) quickly assembles an elite team (Oscar winner Chris Cooper and Golden Globe winners Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) and negotiates a secret five-day trip into Saudi Arabia to locate the madman behind the bombing.

Upon landing in the desert kingdom, however, Fleury and his team discover Saudi authorities suspicious and unwelcoming of American interlopers into what they consider a local matter. Hamstrung by protocol – and with the clock ticking on their five days – the FBI agents find their expertise worthless without the trust of their Saudi counterparts, who want to locate the terrorist in their homeland on their own terms.


Welcome to The Kingdom: An Action-Thriller is Built

Peter Berg conceived of the idea for The Kingdom a decade ago, after watching news coverage of the infamous June 25, 1996, Khobar Towers terrorist attack in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Hezbollah exploded a fuel truck that slaughtered 372 people of many nationalities in one of the most brutal anti-American attacks ever staged in the region. 

Berg recalls of the attack that affected U.S. relations with its Saudi allies: “It was an act of terrorism that targeted Americans, and was felt painfully by Saudis as well. It led to the FBI trying to work for the first time with Saudi law enforcement, which proved to be a complicated and tricky investigative effort. I thought it would be a fascinating idea for a film, to watch how the American and Arab cultures – both targets of religious violence and sharing a common interest in battling religious extremism – navigate differences, suspicions and politics to try and work together.

Over the next few years the idea would gestate as Berg developed a dual career as actor and filmmaker, helming notable box-office hits from The Rundown to Friday Night Lights. The concept would also gel in the scores of conversations he and a close Saudi friend had about the political realities and complexities of Arab-American relations. And then came September 11, 2001.

“After 9/11, there was so much anti-Saudi sentiment in the States, because so many of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia; Osama was Saudi. But, it wasn’t reflected in my relationships with Saudis I knew.” The director believed that there was no better time to make a film that “looks at the join Arab and American fight against violent extremism.”

He wanted to create an action-thriller that presented two worlds working together, “through the friendship that develops between two men from very different cultures – an FBI agent and a Saudi colonel.” And he would find that material during Summer 2003.

In June 2003, Berg approached Mann in his office next door and asked if he’d produce the project through his Forward Pass production company. Mann was producing The Aviator, directed by Martin Scorsese, and liked the idea of working with strong directors with authoritative visions. The screenwriter Berg had in mind was a 30-year-old unknown named Matthew Michael Carnahan, who had written a scorching drama titled Soldier Field – which told the story of a Chicago police officer pitted against the Mafia and the Russian mob. Mann had read Canahan’s Soldier Field.

Berg responded to the strategic ways in which Canahan crafted action, and knew he was the man for the job. “He’s a politically savvy guy, but he also writes kick-ass action,” the director says. “We didn’t want to make a film that fundamentally existed as a political expose. We wanted a film that was entertaining and muscular with strong action, yet was fair in capturing the politics of the times. Mann and Berg took the story to Universal Pictures.

Mann, long known for his catalogue of explosive thrillers and smart dramas, was curious to explore a “procedural homicide investigation done in the most hostile of circumstances.” He thought there would be great dramatic tension in the knowledge that, for ops-leader Ronald Fleury, “they don’t want you there; your government doesn’t want you to be there. And all of that forces a coalition, and eventually, a fraternal loyalty between two law enforcement officials.”

The celebrated filmmaker believed there was no better way to examine political, global, and regional issues than by examining them through the experience of a homicide detective. He offers, “When violence happens, it is truly traumatic on the personal level. That’s why we wanted to ground the whole story inside the day-to-day experience of two exceptionally skilled police types who are also average guys with concerns for their families and the state of safety in their countries.”

Producer Scott Stuber, who previously worked with director Berg on both The Rundown and Friday Night Lights as Universal Pictures’ vice chairman of worldwide production, remembers when the idea for the project came across his desk, “Pete, Michael and I had dinner together,” he recalls. “They pitched the story to me, and I thought it was a great idea. We were all big fans of Carnahan’s script for Soldier Field, and he wanted to write this.. so it was an easy pitch for me to buy for the studio.”

During the project’s development, Stuber announced his departure from the executive suites of Universal to form, along with his co-chair at the studio and one of the film’s executive producers, Mary Parent, the production company Stuber/Parent. Berg and Mann contacted Stuber, asking him to stay on and help shepherd the project to the screen. The Kingdom was one of the projects that Stuber had passionately advocated at Universal, and he was committed to helping fulfill the project’s destiny by working on it as a producer.

Stuber responded to the developing story of taking “four investigators and putting them on Mars – in a place that’s the most difficult to execute their job.” He firmly believed The Kingdom could “play both as an intellectual drama and as an action movie – it has action and thrills, but it also deals with real-world problems. 

Mann introduced the team to Richard Klein, managing director for the Middle East and Arabian Gulf at Kissinger McLarty Associates, and Time magazine’s Elaine Shannon. And on multiple research trips to Washington, D.C., Carnahan met with several of the FBI’s top explosives experts and hostage rescue team members to get specifics of their experiences in the Middle East. He spoke with agents who had seen the after effects of the Khobar bombing, worked in Yemen after the U.S.S. Cole was attacked and slogged through East Africa after American embassies were bombed.

Carnahan leveraged their encyclopedic knowledge and perceptions of working with foreign nationals into making the script as true to life as possible. He was particularly intrigued by the stories of hostage rescue team members accompanying the FBI and protecting investigators – and the different standards of justice, criminal procedure and criminal science they found in their host countries. Tragically, in May 2003, three western housing complexes in Saudi Arabia were attacked in the same night. That was the final see that would inform the filmed script.

Berg was able to travel to Saudi Arabia to do additional research on behalf of the film. In one scouting session, he sat on a panel with Saudi women and men from different strata of society. “This is a story set in a world that most of us know nothing about, but Pete had a real vision for the type of movie he wanted to make,” recalls Stuber.

The director emphasizes he wasn’t “looking to make a jingoistic all-American film about a group of Americans that come and kick ass in an Arab culture. We’re politically neutral in the film. If we go after anyone, it’s violent extremism. The move is about Americans and Arabs working together in a very decent and human way.”

Production green lit and a script finished, the producers and Berg would look to develop an elite team out of four American and two Arab actors who were willing to undergo hard-core training in the most brutal of heat.

[From "The Kingdom" Official Web Site]


From the MoviesOnline Interview with Peter Berg, Director "The Kingdom"

Berg: It was important to me that this film not lead with its politics. I don't believe that people go to films to be educated. That's certainly not the first and primary reason why people go to films, and if you're too heavy-handed with any message, whatever it is, you're probably going to put people off. I know, I don't go to films to be educated. There are other areas — if I want to be politically educated, there are other ways I would do that than go to a Hollywood film. So it was important to me that the film work as an exciting and dynamic procedural. At its core, this film is about FBI agents trying to investigate a series of homicides in a complicated environment. That's it. 

Obviously politics and religion play a strong role in the film, and as a filmmaker I wanted to make a film that responded to the times that we were living in and make a film that in 15 years my son, who's now 7, will be able to watch and have I think a unique and a fair representation and understanding of what life was like for all of us who were living in this time. And because of that, I wanted to make a film that dealt with the Middle East and dealt with religious extremism, but I first and foremost wanted to make a film that — in this case the film's a thriller — people would be thrilled at, people would be excited about, scared, pumped up, emotional over. And that was the promise I made to the studio. 

The studios, believe me, aren't rushing out to make educational films about the Middle East. There’s not a big win for them. They don't see that as a win. So they kept saying — it's gonna be intense, right? And I'd say — I think it will be, yes. — Please make it intense. I said — I will. It's also my belief that it doesn't take a lot to get people thinking. To me, the ending — the little ending in this film — should be thought-provoking. And it doesn't take so much, you know, and I think the opening credit sequence I'm very proud of in this film, and I wanted to give people a fun, engaging, educational experience as to what is going on in the Middle East. 

I was pretty shocked to find out that many people don't understand that 15 of the 19 hijackers at 9/11 were not from Iraq. They were from Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, he's not from Iraq. And everyone understands oil. There's a lot of oil there, but there's a lot more going on. I want people to understand that, and I found that just like getting my son to do things he doesn't want to do in terms of math and science, if you can make it entertaining and almost trick people into having something that then feels more like an educational, thought-provoking experience, then everyone wins..

Question: The movie seems to be balanced between showing good Saudis and bad.

Berg: I tried to make as balanced a film as I could. I went to Saudi Arabia for three weeks. As far as I know, I'm the only American filmmaker ever to get a visa to go there as a filmmaker. It took me a long time to get that visa. It took several meetings with Prince Turki al-Faisal who's the ex-ambassador to the U.S. and the United Kingdom who ran the Saudi Intelligence Agency and was the last Saudi to meet with Osama, tried to get him to surrender. I had three long meetings with Prince Turki who then granted me a visa. I have friends who are Saudi, I've shown them the film in London, and they responded quite well. It's important to me, particularly through the character of Al Ghazi, played by Ashraf, to present a moderate Arab, someone who was as interested in battling religious extremism as we appear to be, and it's my experience that the great majority of the Saudis that I encountered are moderate, and I tried to make as balanced of a film in that regard as I could. 




Review: 'Kingdom's' brawn overwhelms brains - CNN
Perhaps it was the daily bombardment of media imagery that deterred filmmakers from confronting the Vietnam War until after U.S. troops were safely home. With Iraq it's different. The steady drip of spin and punditry conceals as much as it reveals, and Hollywood is stepping in to fill the breach. Not that "The Kingdom" explicitly references Iraq -- the kingdom in question is Saudi Arabia. But this is unmistakably a post-9/11 scenario; you might say it is the 9/11 scenario, after a studio rewrite or three. This time the terrorist attack takes place on foreign soil -- if that's an appropriate description for a U.S. military base in Riyadh. Gunmen open fire indiscriminately, killing men, women and children enjoying a softball game. This bloodthirsty atrocity is compounded a few hours later with the detonation of a massive car bomb (the devastating blast, probably based on the Khobar Towers bombing, is surely intended to echo Oklahoma City).  < MORE

Explosive 'Kingdom' -- Taut and tense, Peter Berg's intelligent, finely acted thriller keeps the action coming - Baltimore Sun
(B+) If the anti-terrorist thriller The Kingdom had been released in 2004, it might have helped John Kerry win the presidential election. With eye-opening audacity, it adopts the same message that brought ridicule on Kerry: The fight against terrorism should be a massive police action, not a war.   < MORE >

'The Kingdom' ducks the big questions - Detroit Free Press
A lot of satisfying, entertaining action pictures have only an artificial brain to power the machinery. "The Kingdom" is the opposite: It's a smart picture with much to say. But in the end, it elects not to say it. "The Kingdom" sends a quartet of FBI investigators to Saudi Arabia following a terrorist bombing in which one of its agents was killed. The film raises some of the most critical questions in the war against terror. Chief among them, is this really the global war as it has been promoted? And, could some really good cops do a better a better job of catching the bad guy than an ill-equipped army?  < MORE >

F.B.I. Agents Solve the Terrorist Problem - NY Times
What good is geopolitical turmoil if you can’t have some fun with it? Hollywood has been posing that rhetorical question for a long time now — from “Ninotchka” to “Rambo” by way of a battalion of World War II combat pictures — but it has so far been a bit squeamish about turning the various post-9/11 conflicts into grist for escapist entertainment. “The Kingdom,” a whodunit/blow-’em-up directed by Peter Berg, corrects this lapse by taking aim at the ethical nuances and ideological contradictions of the war on terror and blasting away.   < MORE >

Saudi Arabia setting for tense FBI drama - Herald News Online
'The Kingdom," about the investigation of a terrorist attack on American workers in Saudi Arabia, wants to be a hot-button political thriller, but it doesn't really push the right button until the very end. Up until that point the movie is still serviceable, especially as a topical take on the recent forensic craze. Consider it "CSI: Riyadh.".. ..The crucial role, though, belongs to Ashraf Barhoum. As Col. Al-Ghazi, a hand-tied Saudi official with a genuine desire to find the killers, Barhoum offers a Middle-Eastern character unfamiliar to most Hollywood movies. Not a villain and not a victim, Al-Ghazi is instead the flip side of Fleury. He's a man who believes in upholding the law at a time when the law is besieged by terror..  < MORE >


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