I saw and enjoyed this movie, pre-9/11. Today, in retrospect it is an eerie, and sometimes prophetic, must-see. There are some poignant NYC establishment shots of the WTC. Denzel was OK, but I tire of seeing him as the straightforward protagonist expressing sentiments with which one could hardly disagree:
What if what they really want is for us to herd children into stadiums like we're doing? And put soldiers on the street and - and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit? Because if we torture him, General, we do that, and everything that we have bled and fought and died for is over, and they've won. They've already won!
The Bruce Willis character was the more complex of the two, and had more memorable lines, including "This is the land of opportunity, gentlemen. You have the opportunity to turn yourself in"...but of course they're both glorified action-heros. Annette Bening as the two-faced, tough-as-nails CIA agent ("We're the CIA, something always goes wrong") was a far more convincing character than the earnest, politically correct lobbyist/sex kitten she played in The American President. The (tasteful) bathhouse scene in which she learns SPOILER!her precious informant is actually the accused terrorist is well done, as is the scene in which Shalhoub's character, an Arab-American FBI agent, is searching (I think it's) Shea Stadium turned prison camp for his son Frank Jr. who was caught up in a military police sweep. There are some good plot twists, however, the moral of movie, while it contains more than a kernel of truth is unsatisfying, predictable, and even stereotypical (and hence hardly a spoiler at all): all the bad things happen in the movie because we didn't respect someone's constitutional rights. The terrorists are simply our conscience; we are our own worse enemy. If only we lived up to the true meaning of our creed, the terrorists would somehow be satisfied and leave us alone. And so on.

I am proud to see that in the real world, our response to mass terrorism, while infringing on too many fundamental liberties, has so far been far more measured than the movie portrays. I wish the real FBI had been as interested in the getting to the bottom of things as Denzel Washington's character was. The movie cast an harsh light on the Bruce Willis character's "brutal pragmatism" as he implemented martial law, including torture, in NYC, but failed to portray the politicians who allowed martial law to be declared, leaving us with the impression that the military can just hop into their HMMWV's anytime they like and declare martial law (legally they can't and in the history of the US they never have without authorization). The movie also completely ignored the real FBI's tendency to whitewash Islamic terrorists as emotionally disturbed individuals acting alone and devoid of any larger religious or political context or movement.1 This movie deserves some credit for being willing to explore some of the Arab dimensions of some terrorism, as well as our response to it, without cop-outs such as were done in the film adaptation of Sum of All Fears. The Fox Network TV series 24 also deserves credit in this respect. I left the movie (who am I kidding; I left the living room :-) with a feeling similar to the TV series The West Wing: admiring the chops of the actors, directors, and writers, and intrigued by occasional, genuine insights into US politics and culture, but forever wary of the heavy hand of Hollywood group-think.

One of the most pitiful things I've heard about this movie is the claim that it's anti-Arab. To mr100percent's credit, he doesn't make the claim, he only repeats it, and he touches gently on the irony, noting that most of the Arabs portrayed in the movie were innocent victims of, in my opinion, the terrorism and the repression that followed. At the risk of being considered less gentle, I want to make clear the full implications. To make this claim, one has to at best accept the premise that any attempt to portray Arabs as ordinary, flawed human beings (some good, some evil, most just trying to survive) is somehow anti-Arab. Which is to say, any movie that doesn't portray all Arabs in a uniformly positive light (which in my view would be propaganda, not art), is anti-Arab.

At worse, since the only Arabs that are portrayed in a bad light are the ones who (based on the premises of the movie) are terrorists, the claim implies that the only true Arabs are terrorists.

I want to end on a positive note. In real life, the January 10, 2003 NY Daily News carried this story:

Syed Ali, 35, was working at the Amoco station on Ocean Ave. in Sheepshead Bay at about 4 a.m. when he sold $2 worth of fuel to the alleged would-be arsonist.

The Pakistani immigrant said he watched in disbelief as Sead Jakup, 22, took the canister across the street and began dousing the Young Israel of Kings Bay synagogue.

Ali quickly called 911, and cops arrived before Jakup, a Bosnian Muslim, could set the temple ablaze
Ali declined to accept the mantle of hero, saying he did only what any responsible person would do. "It's a sacred place he was going to destroy," Ali said.
It's hard to think of a more pro-Arab2 story.

Movie quotes and other info courtesy the IMDB, including http://us.imdb.com/Quotes?0133952.

1. Examples of FBI whitewashing include, but are not limited to:

  • The investigation of the 1993 WTC bombing;
  • The repeated, baffling failure to pursue leads prior to the 2001 bombing, as documented in the famous memo by FBI agent Coleen Rowley;
  • The case of FBI agent Gamal Abdel-Hafiz who flat out refused to eavesdrop on a fellow Muslim. Everyone, including an FBI agent, is I suppose entitled to follow the dictates of their conscience and accept the consequences; my point is that so far, the FBI has refused to fire him, citing sensitivity concerns! See the NY Post March 14, 2003 op-ed, reproduced at http://www.danielpipes.org/article/1038, or the December 19, ABC Primetime Live broadcast, reproduced at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/primetime/DailyNews/FBI_whistleblowers021219.html;
2. Or at least, pro-Islam since if I understand correctly, not all Pakistanis are of Arab descent.