It was the final month of the 20th century and masses of protestors converged on Seattle to disrupt the meeting of the World Trade Organization and it’s policies. Everyone--from environmental advocates labor unions students anti-war demonstrators and many others--joined hands and goals to sidetrack the meetings which would include a visit from President Clinton. Riots broke out things got out of hand and police and National Guard were called in using force and tear gas to quell the uprising. Against this true background actor-turned-writer/director Stuart Townsend knits a group of mostly fictional individual stories that highlight the various kinds of people who were there--including key activists Django (Andre Benjamin) Sam (Jennifer Carpenter) Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) and Jay (Martin Henderson) a dedicated leader whose cause has been spurred on by the death of his brother and whose determination to make a difference leads to great personal consequences. There’s also Dale a riot cop who becomes conflicted about his job when his pregnant wife Ella (Charlize Theron) becomes an innocent victim of the violent outbreak between protestors and law enforcement. The mayor (Ray Liotta) and a news reporter (Connie Nielsen) are others who find themselves caught up in events outside of their normal professional experience. The ensemble cast is well chosen for this intense independent movie that attempts to shine a light on a major political catastrophe 10 years earlier. Henderson is very strong as a guy whose personal family tragedy spurs him on to accomplish the destruction of the WTO conference by nearly any means possible. His one-sided view has hardened him and is so unbending he’s also destroying his close relationship with Lou played by Rodriguez a person who realizes there are limits but has a tough time convincing him. Benjamin is the rare bright light in the film a man with spunk and spirit who believes deeply in the cause but has others ways of making it happen. Director Townsend’s longtime girlfriend Theron has some touching and effective moments as an innocent bystander who finds herself tragically connected to the events in the streets. Her role is clearly meant to put some raw emotion into the proceedings keeping the depiction of these true life events from becoming a straight polemic. The ever-reliable Liotta makes a believable mayor with a BIG problem on his hands and Nielsen as a TV news reporter nails the inner turmoil many face when covering a major story and trying to remain a human being at the same time. Heartthrobs Channing Tatum and Joshua Jackson show some acting chops as well in their brief screen appearances here.
Clearly inspired by the political films of the ‘60s and ‘70s particularly State of Siege and Medium Cool writer-director Townsend definitely gets the feel of this unforeseen disaster as it unfolds on the streets of Seattle. He has skillfully woven actual news footage with his fictional take on things seamlessly blending the two and giving the picture the kind of scale he could never achieve if he actually had to start from scratch. With the focus on a group of fictional characters the audience can identify with he gets the kind of emotional power usually missing from political films of this stripe. Telling the individual stories of those caught up in all this mayhem helps us identify with their cause as well which clearly seems to be the director’s intention. This is a powerful wrenching and impressive writing and directing debut for the talented actor definitely now a triple showbiz threat.