It's the autumn of the matriarch

Landing halfway between "Medium Cool" and a '70s disaster pic, drama has some conventional ideas and weak writing. But it mostly works, as a non-didactic portrait of the clash between grassroots activists and the powers-that-be.

Stuart Townsend’s “Battle in Seattle” is a fictionalized recap of 1999′s first Stateside WTO ministerial conference, where outbreaks of violence focused global (or at least North American) attention on the underlying issues as never before — and so far, never again. Landing halfway between “Medium Cool” and a ’70s disaster pic, drama has some conventional ideas and weak writing. But it mostly works, as a non-didactic portrait of the clash between grassroots activists and the powers-that-be. U.S. production will likely score just modest returns on home turf; pic might click better with select overseas auds.

Such is the low ebb to which the globalization debate has sunk in the U.S., that it took an Irish actor to make the first major narrative feature about the events in question.

Opening credits roll under a brief, illustrated lecture about post-WWII First World trade policies. Then dramatis personae are introduced, starting with Jay (Martin Henderson) and Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) as they unfurl a banner suggesting that the closed-door WTO sessions are the opposite of democracy in action. Jay’s a firebrand in environmental activism; Lou’s the angry offspring of a researcher who uses animals in testing. Romantic sparks fly, though predictably, Jay must assuage tough Lou’s trust issues.

Meanwhile, Mayor Tobin (Ray Liotta) is trying to ensure that the coming days allow both WTO attendees and the many thousands of expected protesters to do what they came to do, peaceably. But protesters outfox police in shutting down several key intersections and closing off the convention’s opening venue, while so-called anarchists vandalize some downtown businesses, ignoring the pleas of Jay and most activists that, “This is not a violent protest!”

Immediately the media cry wolf over a “city descending into chaos.” Seattle’s police chief, the governor and even the White House soon exert maximum pressure on the mayor to use aggressive deterrence tactics. Not long after, cops in riot gear are firing tear gas and using full physical force; a state of emergency is declared, curfew imposed, the National Guard brought in. These decisions ultimately backfire, and many initially hostile toward “tree-huggers” begin to wonder if free speech was sacrificed in Seattle for the sake of furthering an elite economic agenda.

With such issues as global warming, sweatshop labor, sustainable farming et al rising in the public consciousness, it briefly seemed a corner had been turned. But as a series of closing-credit updates suggests, the post-9/11 war on terror did a great deal to bury that momentum.

Effectively mixing original broadcast and amateur vid footage (especially during scenes of crowd panic and police brutality) with interwoven fictive strands, Townsend acquits himself well, if not outstandingly, as both writing and directing newbie.

Helming doesn’t approach the harrowing you-are-there quality of a docudrama like “Bloody Sunday,” but it’s credibly staged for the most part. Screenplay is more problematic, as the human dramas imposed on nonfiction backdrop occasionally feel contrived and sport some flatfooted dialogue. It’s awfully convenient that the same handful of characters keep crossing paths amid the chaos, and some convert from apolitically crass to conscientious a little too fast, notably Channing Tatum’s knucklehead cop and Connie Nielsen’s TV reporter.

Still, pic’s ambition, cogency and decent perfs make up for its uneven aspects. Woody Harrelson has some especially good moments as a cop who misdirects his rage after his heavily pregnant wife (Townsend’s girlfriend, Charlize Theron) is harmed by one of his fellow officers. Another notable presence is Rade Serbedzija as a doctor trying to draw WTO attention to an African AIDS epidemic.

Shot in Vancouver as well as Seattle, pic is well turned without being overly slick in design and tech depts.

Battle in Seattle

Production

A Hyde Park Entertainment presentation of an Insight Film Studios, Remstar production, in association with Proud Mary Entertainment, Redwood Palm Pictures. (International sales: Hyde Park Entertainment, Sherman Oaks, Calif.) Produced by Kirk Shaw, Maxime Remillard, Mary Aloe, Stuart Townsend. Executive producer, Julien Remillard. Co-producer, Lindsay MacAdam. Directed, written by Stuart Townsend.

Crew

Camera (color), Barry Ackroyd; editor, Fernando Villena; music, One Point Six; production designer, Chris August; art director, Kirsten Franson; set decorator, Shannon Murphy; costume designer, Andrea Des Roches; sound (Dolby Digital), John Boyle; assistant director, Robert Crippen, casting, Randi Hiller, Sarah Finn. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 9, 2007. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Django - Andre Benjamin Dale - Woody Harrelson Jay - Martin Henderson Mayor Tobin - Ray Liotta Jean - Connie Nielsen Lou - Michelle Rodriguez Johnson - Channing Tatum Ella - Charlize Theron
With: Jennifer Carpenter, Isaach de Bankole, Joshua Jackson, Tobias Mehler, Ivana Millicevic, Rade Serbedzija.

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