Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) is dangling from a cable. Set against a spectacular view that includes Seattle’s famous Needle, she’s part of a crew erecting a banner protesting the World Trade Organization. It’s November, 1999, and the group is about to open its first meeting on U.S. soil, a meeting for which both municipal workers and protestors have prepared for months. And Lou is hanging in the air, momentarily dizzied, about to be rescued by her co-demonstrator, Jay (Martin Henderson).
It’s a dazzling first image for the action of Battle in Seattle, Stuart Townsend’s writing-and-directing debut, resonant with risk and hope, breathtaking beauty and corporate symbolism. It also follows a less poetic credits sequence that provides ideological ground for this heartfelt film, in the form of a short history of the WTO. Conceived as a next step from the post-WWII GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), the organization was pitched as a means to stabilize an inevitably “global economy,” then soon became a means to enrich the so-called first world and exploit developing nations. As the film puts it, the WTO proposes that “money values should rule over life values, that human rights and the environment should be subordinated to the needs of commerce.”
Understood in this context, Lou’s dangling is extra-emblematic. Battle in Seattle goes on to track the activities of several individuals during 1999 meeting — introduced in a sequence that compares their efforts to set agendas, and including street cop Dale (Woody Harrelson) and his pregnant wife Ella (Charlize Theron), Seattle mayor Jim Tobin (Ray Liotta) and TV reporter Jean (Connie Nielson), and earnest Dr. Maric (Rade Sherbedzija), who plans to use the meeting to solicit funds and structural help to fight AIDS. Despite this ostensible range of situations, the film’s political judgment against the WTO and related corporate interests is never in doubt (see: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who pops up in a TV news clip lamenting, “For us to have to close our stores at the height of the holiday season really is an injustice”). Even as various people try to “do their jobs,” they are repeatedly boxed in by lack of information and lack of power. They are repeatedly boxed in, that is, by the machinations of global operators affiliated with the WTO, not least being the U.S. government. Positing the meeting as “a battle for the future,” the movie offers a series of not-so-compelling vignettes to show the costs of greed and corruption.
Thus, participants with express good intentions are soon swept up in violence and seeming chaos. The “seeming” is key here, as the film proposes that the incidents for which the 19999 meeting became notorious were more often than not instigated by specific actions, whether reckless or intended. So, though Jay instructs his people to maintain their non-violent tactics, he’s up against a couple of forces beyond his control. Number one, the cops in their riot gear are increasingly ominous (and at least one, Johnson, played by Channing Tatum, makes explicit efforts to jumpstart violent clashes). And number two, poor Jay is battling a trauma from his own past, shown a few too many times, in which his brother is killed during a save-the-sequoias protest some years before. That Jay’s emotional outbursts are triggered by this memory (in which Jay begs authorities to help his fallen brother, and bizarrely recalls himself doing so in TV news footage) becomes a tedious refrain, a kind of too-easy indication of his painful and sometimes irrational investment in The Cause. On the other “side,” Jim attempts to do the right thing — extend the right of free speech to the protestors who have promised to be peaceful — though he is continually pitted against the governor (Tzi Ma), who is in turn pressured by feds to clean up the streets before President Clinton’s scheduled appearance at the meeting.
Structured by dates (“Tuesday, November 29,” “Wednesday, November 30,” etc.), the movie illustrates the escalation of emotions and actions in a way that’s a little too orderly, too conditioned by cause-and-effect. With frequent cuts to actual footage of the protests and clashes between cops/the National Guard and demonstrators, it acknowledges its most obvious precursor Medium Cool, much as the protestors in Seattle understood themselves as also imbricated in “history,” specifically a history forged in imagery. “The whole world is watching,” they chanted repeatedly, and do again here, even when they are not on screen, but being heard by Dr. Maric, his close-up face revealing his own sense of loss — for the protests mean he won’t get his chance to speak to WTO members.
Such approximation of a kind of “double consciousness” is the film’s most effective gambit. Still, it doesn’t prevail against Battle in Seattle‘s other tendency, to lapse into melodrama, whether involving Jay and Lou’s burgeoning romance, Jean’s realization that parroting the commercial media line is morally bankrupt, or (least surprising) Ella’s pregnancy. When she and her fellow department store clerk Carla (Ivana Milicevic) go shopping for baby clothes, a protestor literally smashes the front window to offer an ethical lesson. Frightened and outraged, Carla scolds the guy (“What are you doing? This woman is pregnant!”), whereupon he spews the party line: “You’re having a kid? You want your kid to work to death in a sweat shop making baby clothes?” Ella sputters, “Of course not,” so he can bring it home: “Then don’t fucking shop here!”
As the white folks have to learn their lesson in hard ways, the film provides one especially instructive figure in Django (Andre Benjamin). His role is especially frustrating, as he swings from instructor for the clueless Jean (“If you feel the ruling that threatens an endangered species is any different from, say, millions of working class jobs being outsourced or the quality of our environment or our food getting worse, you’re just not connecting the dots”) to cheerleader for the protesters who wind up in a jail cell with him, literally singing for them, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” At moments like these, it’s helpful to remember that Battle in Seattle really does mean well.