With the fight against terrorism indefinitely stalled in Iraq, viewers are probably thirsting for a movie like The Kingdom, which offers the fantasy of Americans laying waste to terrorists in the country that spawned 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers. The film is dangerously cathartic, especially once the action shifts to a particularly hostile neighborhood and evildoers with Kalashnikovs and rocket-launchers are picked off like tin ducks at a carnival booth. The heroes of Peter Berg's gung-ho retribution tale are fighting the terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them here, but his film is indulging in a queasy brand of escapism. Winning imaginary wars isn't the same as winning real ones, but The Kingdom nonetheless smells like victory.
After providing a crude thumbnail sketch of U.S.-Saudi relationships, the film opens in a heavily guarded compound for American oil workers and their families. As the workers enjoy a leisurely afternoon of softball and cookouts, terrorists posing as official guards open fire on them, but that's only a precursor to a much more devastating attack. With more than 100 dead, including two of their agents, the FBI is anxious to investigate the crime, but the tenuous relationship between the U.S. and the Saudi royal family—as well as the family's relationship to the kingdom outside its walls—makes for a sticky political situation. Eventually, the FBI gets permission to send an elite team of four agents (Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman), who learn that getting to the truth involves a lot of time-consuming protocol and red tape.
With a sympathetic Saudi colonel (Ashraf Barhom) serving as their tour guide—a political cover for a film that could be tarred as racist—the FBI team faces so much obstruction that it's extra-exhilarating when they finally head into Terrorist Central with guns a-blazin'. Let's be clear: The Kingdom isn't intended as a jingoistic bloodbath along the lines of Rambo or Missing In Action; it at least attempts to understand the complications inherent in U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, and the chilling coda muddies the waters even further. But it takes delicacy and tact to tiptoe through this particular minefield, and director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), though undeniably skilled behind the camera, winds up appealing to people's basest instincts. The Kingdom offers the war on terrorism we wanted to fight—with clear, identifiable enemies; rock-solid intelligence; and precise deployment of American might—instead of the one we're stuck with.