‘Battle in Seattle’ movie review: intense re-enactment of the ’99 WTO riots

A dramatic re-enactment of the riots that erupted in the wake of the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, actor-turned-writer-director Stuart Townsend’s Battle in Seattle is a surprisingly effective little piece of propaganda. 

André Benjamin’s protestor Django declares at the end “a few days ago people didn’t know what the WTO is, and now, well, they probably still don’t know what it is, but they know it’s bad.” I got the same gist from the movie, which doesn’t successfully explore the situation but serves as an effective rallying cry that something is wrong.

Over five days in late 1999, thousands of activists took to streets and effectively shut down the meeting of the WTO; riots erupted, garnering worldwide publicity for their cause. 

What that cause was, of course, gets lost in the shuffle: the globalization promoted by the WTO, which can result in environmental damage as decisions made by corporations and governments often boil down to the matters of money.

Battle in Seattle follows the events from a variety of angles. Seattle mayor Jim Tobin (Ray Liotta) initially wants to keep the peace, allowing protestors and a labor march and ordering police not to make any arrests but to contain the crowds as best as they can. 

Activist leader Jay (Martin Henderson) organizes the events, which have front-line protestors like Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) cementing their arms together to prevent delegates from entering the meeting, charismatic Django speaking to the press, and some distaff members disrupting the ‘peaceful’ protest by chucking rocks through storefront windows. 

Cop Dale (Woody Harrelson) watches the events unfold while his pregnant wife Ella (Charlize Theron) is an innocent bystander caught up in the riots. Reporter Jean (Connie Nielson) eventually gets caught in the protests herself.

Irish director Townsend’s portrait of the riots often recalls Paul Greengrass’ excellent look at the Northern Ireland 1972 civil rights protest, Bloody Sunday. Going back further, its seamless incorporation of footage of the actual events recalls Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool.

If my appreciation for Townsend’s film is muted, it’s partially because I found it to be unnecessarily sensationalistic, carrying a scene where a pregnant woman is dealt a nightstick to the midsection by a police officer, causing a bloody miscarriage. I don’t want to say the message here is unworthy of sensationalism, but I fear the film might have turned the actual events into something they weren’t.

There’s also some unnecessary character work, mostly surrounding Jay, whose brother was killed in a previous protest, and who is apparently on his third strike. Considering the magnitude of the surrounding events the film is trying to convey, I didn’t need that kind of backstory here, which ultimately feels trite.

The cast is all-around excellent, and Battle in Seattle features three climatic, impressively memorable speeches by supporting characters: Django’s quote that I referenced above, delegate Dr. Maric (Rade Serbedzija) demanding to be heard when the audience listening to his campaign for low-cost medicine in third-world countries begins to leave, and African delegate Abasi (Isaach De Bankolé) leading an internal protest at the WTO meeting amidst scattered boos and applause.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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