Mainstream films about American political activists are so rare that it’s one of the few genres where it might be possible to see them all in one long weekend. I can only think of a few. There’s The Strawberry Statement, a loose dramatization of the 1968 strike at Columbia University. There’s Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni’s very strange English language film set in Southern California. There’s Panther by Mario Van Peebles, Selma by Ava DuVernay, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X by Spike Lee. That’s about it. So if Battle in Seattle, Stuart Townsend’s depiction of the protests against the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 is not a great movie, it’s probably still worth seeing, if only because it’s at the very least a competent movie.
As Battle in Seattle opens, Jay, played by Martin Henderson, and Lou, Michelle Rodriguez, are hundreds of feet above downtown Seattle, setting up the famous banner drop. Democracy, an arrow points in one direct, WTO, another points in the opposite. The film shifts to the headquarters of the Seattle Police, where we learn that Lou “burned down her father’s animal research lab, although she wasn’t formally charged,” and that Jay is an environmentalist whose “brother was killed in the Sequoia Forest demonstration.” We are also introduced to Django, André 3000 from Outkast, and Samantha Clayton, Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter.
We also learn why Battle in Seattle could not have been made after Occupy Wall Street. Stuart Townsend is a competent filmmaker and he’s very sympathetic to the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle, but his politics might best be described as “Chris Hedges 2011.” After the police chief tells us that Lou “has participated in black bloc demonstrations that have turned violent,” the film shifts to Jay conducting a teach in. “We are going to shut these areas down,” he says, referring to all the major intersections in downtown Seattle. He asks a question. “How are we going to do it?” He answers the question himself, “non-violently, and by consensus.” Then Townsend shifts back to police headquarters. “Jay and Lou, are not anarchists, as we first thought,” the police chief says.
I can just hear the collective groan from the anarchist community. That Townsend is making a statement about the ignorance of the police is put to rest by the rest of the film. Pretty much everybody in Battle in Seattle, the liberal, Bill de Blasio like mayor played by Ray Liotta, a World Trade Organization delegate with a thick Slavic accent played by Ivana Miličević, and even a Seattle police officer played by Woody Harrelson, are sympathetic. Harrelson’s cop only beats protesters because he’s stressed out working a double shift as a riot cop, and worried about his pregnant wife, Mad Max Fury Road’s Charlize Theron. A TV reporter played by Connie Nielson, who I kept getting mixed up with Charlize Theron — Do all white women look alike? — has a change of heart and actually joins the protests after getting tear gassed. Townsend depicts almost everybody in Seattle in 1999 as at least a sympathetic liberal caught up in events beyond his or her control. There’s only one exception, the black bloc.
While Lou is described early in Battle in Seattle as being a former member of the black bloc, Townsend seems to consider it as a youthful indiscretion. In 1999, he tells us, there was no crossover between the organizers of the WTO protests and the black block itself. Like Chris Hedges in 2011, he presents the black bloc as a fixed group of protesters, not as a tactic used by many protesters of all ideologies. What’s more, all of the “black bloc anarchists” are depicted as sexist assholes and attention whores. One breaks into a department store and terrorizes the pregnant Charlize Theron. Another gets into a shouting match, then a shoving match, with Jay and Lou. “This isn’t anarchy,” Lou shouts. “We’re the ones getting the press,” he shouts back. It’s all right out of the NY Post or Fox News, and almost comically dated. Everything was going fine, Townsend seems to think, until those damned anarchists came along and ruined it.
Nevertheless, Battle in Seattle is enlightening, not in spite of how it’s so dated, but because of how it’s so dated. Sympathetic police officers, corporate TV “news” reporters who quit their jobs on the spur of the moment and join protests, anarchists who terrorize pregnant women, as ridiculous as it all seems today, it’s what many liberals believed in 2007. Battle in Seattle would be a much different film if someone made it in 2015. During the run up to the election of Barack Obama, it was the nostalgic fantasy of the college educated leftist for the “anti-globalization” movement that got derailed by 9/11. In the wake of the Arab Springs, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter, we all know better. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that some of the things we believe in 2015 won’t seem just as silly in 2022.
Final Note: The best thing about Battle in Seattle might be Outkast’s André 3000 as “Django.” It would have been a much better film had he, not Martin Hendrickson, played the lead. He was not only perfectly credible as an environmental activist, he was smarter than his character, and he knew it. Just watching Django handle a TV “news” reporter’s leading questions is almost a tutorial in how to handle the media. He also gets the best line in the whole movie. “Battle in Seattle?” he says. “That sounds like a monster truck show.”