Like a Tom Clancy novel with a conscience, this Edward Zwick (Courage Under Fire, Glory, Legends Of The Fall) film tries to balance its technoid thriller side with a plea for tolerance and understanding. It doesn't work. Denzel Washington, competently walking through another uncomplicated-hero role, plays an FBI agent in charge of investigating a series of increasingly devastating terrorist attacks in New York City. Complicating matters is unforthcoming CIA agent Annette Bening and apparently reluctant but inwardly gung-ho general Bruce Willis. A number of groups have protested The Siege for its portrayal of Arab-Americans, but the movie leaves the impression that, in better hands, this wouldn't have even been an issue. But instead of approaching its hot-button topic with a bit more sophistication, the film relies on such time-tested devices as a token sidekick, bringing in Tony Shalhoub as an Arab-American FBI agent whose presence is clearly meant to defuse accusations of racism. As a nail-biting thriller, The Siege is too confusing, and as a thought-provoking social drama, too confused. Aside from one scene involving a bus, the suspense is nil. The third act, in which Willis declares martial law and occupies Brooklyn, has a lot more promise than Zwick cares to capitalize on; and when Washington berates Willis for marching soldiers across the Brooklyn Bridge, it's not clear whether he evokes it for symbolic value or to remind viewers of the movie's most expensive location shot. Ultimately, no matter how hard it tries, The Siege offers no deeper insights than this: If you're ever in a situation where you have to make such decisions, don't declare martial law in New York, no matter how bad things get. Or, if you must, don't put Bruce Willis in charge. That guy's crazy.