From an outsider's perspective—and through the mass media's sometimes-mocking lens—Seattle's 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization's millennial meeting often seemed anarchic and unfocused, a chaotic mixture of organized civil disobedience and costumed street rave. In Battle In Seattle—a mostly fictional take on real events, patterned after Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool—actor-turned-director Stuart Townsend attempts to put faces on the factions and the participants. The best part of the film: While first-time writer-director Townsend is unabashedly anti-WTO, he attempts to show all sides of the story. But that's also the worst part of the film. His kaleidoscopic view is so far-reaching that few of his characters get enough screen time to make an impact.
The film's nominal focus is passionate organizer Martin Henderson, who has personal as well as political reasons for going after the WTO; he and jovial, wonky environmentalist André Benjamin (of OutKast fame) insist on peaceful protest, which sits uncomfortably with results-driven fellow activist Michelle Rodriguez. On the other side: Seattle mayor Ray Liotta, who's committed to freedom of assembly, but has to answer to Washington when "the first Internet protest in history" proves so well-coordinated that it shuts down the WTO talks entirely. Then there are the folks unhappily caught in the middle: Woody Harrelson as a cop on the front lines; Charlize Theron as his pregnant, socially oblivious wife; Connie Nielsen as a smirking, dismissive TV reporter; and Rade Serbedzija as a Doctors Without Borders advocate whose plea for AIDS relief goes unheard amid the chaos.
Townsend makes excellent use of 1999 footage and breathless recreations to give a sense of what it felt like on the ground and in the halls of power, as agendas conflicted and reactions escalated on both sides. But the human element is awkward. The size of the cast forced Townsend to cut corners on character development, such that most of the players seem preachy, shallow, and shrill. Nielsen's almost instantaneous political awakening seems particularly forced, and after the complexity of the POVs, the obligatory post-film call to action seems similarly forced. Still, Townsend makes an admirable commitment to not portraying the establishment as a bunch of mustache-twirling overlords or faceless goons, or the protestors as saints. And it's easy to get caught up in the intensity of his well-staged street battles. It's the next best thing to being there, in that it's likely to make shuddering viewers intensely glad that they weren't.