Actor-turned-writer-director Stuart Townsend bit off more than most neophyte filmmakers could chew in bringing the story of the riots that rocked Seattle, Washington, during the 1999 WTO conference to the big screen. Townsend boldly uses a multi-character, multiple point-of-view structure to tell a very big story in a relatively short amount of time. But what the film lacks in artistry it makes up for in commitment, and his film is a reminder of a key event in the anti-globalization movement.
As representatives of the powerful World Trade Organization converge on Seattle to formulate the global economic policy that will effect millions of people with, as opponents claim, no regard for the environment or the economies and well-being of poor, undeveloped nations, protesters from all over the world flood into the city, prepared to voice their opposition and disrupt the proceedings as best they can. Some, like environmental activist Django Mills (Andre Benjamin) and Jay Elgin (Martin Henderson), whose brother was killed by police while trying to protect old-growth forests, are committed to non-violent action. Others believe it will take more than civil disobedience to catch the WTO's attention. Mayor Jim Tobin (Ray Liotta) is taking every precaution that his city doesn't become like Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and urges cops like Dale (Woody Harrelson) to exercise restraint when dealing with demonstrators, even after they block the entrance to the hotel where the conference is scheduled to take place. By day two, violence has erupted around the city: Masked marauders begin smashing storefront windows and the corporate media makes no distinction between this violent fringe and the peaceful majority, which includes organized labor groups. Relenting to pressure from the Governor (Tzi Ma), Mayor Tobin finally agrees to allow the National Guard into the city, and all hell breaks loose. But not everyone who's come to Seattle to address the WTO has global markets on his or her mind. Abassi (Isaach de Bankole) represents a consortium of struggling post-colonial African nations who hope to convince the WTO to put people before profit; Dr. Maric (Rade Sherbedzija) hopes to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic in Africa and convince pharmaceutical companies to make their expensive drugs available to the suffering poor. But as chaos erupts on Seattle's streets, their voices will be drowned out and uninvolved bystanders, like Dale's pregnant wife, Ella (Charlize Theron), will find themselves caught in the crossfire.
From the brief pre-credit sequence outlining the history of the WTO to the epilogue that attempts to cover post-Seattle developments, Townshend's film has a rigid, schematic structure that may be the inevitable result of its effort to present complex and wide-ranging material. Characters are forced to deliver speeches and manifestos rather than speak naturalistic dialogue, but it's still an important consciousness-raising effort and an admirable piece of filmmaking -- Townsend deftly intercuts staged encounters between protesters and police with actual footage of the riots. As Django observes in the smoky aftermath of the riots, people still may not know exactly what the WTO is, but at least they'll now know it's bad. leave a comment --Ken Fox