Memory is an odd thing. Dredging half remembered films back from the part of the brain that used to be reserved for phone numbers (ask your parents) slippier still. Something barely remembered one moment can become the basis of an article the next. One minute you are in Belfast doing a mural tour of the Falls and Shankill Roads, a couple of days later you are watching and writing about a film written and directed 10 years ago by a young Dubliner in his mid-30s. The half formed idea came via a conversation about The Shankill Butchers, which the fictional film of their story (Resurrection Man) starred a too pretty and miscast Stuart Townsend as Lenny Murphy/Victor Kelly. A subsequent pub discussion centred on Townsend’s career. And then it came up. Do you remember Battle in Seattle? The $8m dollar movie about protesters who disrupted the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 starring Andrey Benjamin, Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, Ray Liotta, Jennifer Carpenter, Michelle Rodriguez and a young Channing Tatum. Huh? Yes indeed. 10 years since its release and there is barely an article online about it. So, what of Battle in Seattle? What of Stuart Townsend? Let us take a look back at the film, the filmmaker, for better or worse and see what the lack of fuss is all about.
Written and directed by Townsend, Battle in Seattle tells the story of the 5 days of protests that took place around Seattle at the WTO meeting in 1999. This is not a documentary (though some TV news footage is in there) and early on the film tells us that although the events are real, the characters are fictional. Jay (Martin Henderson), Django (André Benjamin) and Lou (Michelle Rodriguez) kick the film off, unfurling a protest banner from a crane. Whilst they are protestors, they are peaceful ones who are co-ordinating several demonstrations around the city. Mayor Jim Tobin (Ray Liotta) a former Vietnam protestor who believes in the right to assemble is underprepared for the large numbers of people who turn up. We also meet Dale (Woody Harrelson), a police officer at a check-up with his pregnant wife Ella (Charlize Theron) before going off to work as part of the police presence for the WTO dignitaries arriving for the meeting. There is also a reporter, Jean Ashbury (Connie Nielson) who gets caught up in the protests with her cameraman. Rounding out the main cast are a couple of dignitaries at the WTO meeting itself: Dr. Maric (Rade Serbedzija) who works for Doctors without Borders and Abasi (Isaach De Bankolé), the leader of an unnamed third world country. These characters collide together at various points throughout the film, Crash style (not the Cronenberg sadly, I hasten to add).
Battle in Seattle is a curious film. It is also one that feels like it shouldn’t exist. It is clear that Townsend’s sympathies lie with the protesters. With Hollywood being the conservative place it is, an $8m (around $12-14m in 2017) film about radical left wing protesters from a first time writer/director seems like an anomaly. It would probably struggle to get Hollywood stars also, though it is assumed that being in a relation with Theron helped in this regard but we can hope the script also played its part. But the age old problem facing a director with this kind of film is the compromises that have to be made. There has to be a love story and there has to be a tragic arc. It is how well these can be subsumed into the film overall that determines how successful the filmmaker ultimately is.
Therein lies the problem with Battle in Seattle. We do not know enough about the characters to sufficiently care about what happens to them. What we do find out about them is clichéd and it makes for obvious arcs throughout. When we see Dale and Ella at the doctor’s office our first thought is not that these lovely people deserve happiness and a wonderful family because we barely know them. But we do know how films work. We think ‘oh no an ultrasound’ foreshadowing for Ella, who is used for little more than a tragic plot device. Theron works hard with very little but it feels like such a waste. She stumbles into the protests and eventually loses her baby after been hit in the stomach by an overzealous police officer. This feels pre-ordained in the worst possible way.
Adding to this is the forced romance between Jay and Lou which is unconvincing and thinly sketched. The plot wants them to get together, no one in the audience will care, including I suspect, the characters themselves who don’t even seem to like each other. But perhaps the worst offender in this plot driven shenanigans is kept until last. Dale, looking for time off following Ella losing their baby is refused and told to report for duty. On the front line Dale is mocked by Jay (on his third strike after two previous arrests which meant serious jail time if convicted again) and proceeds to run after him. The chase eventually leads to a church and Dale lays into Jay on the church steps. This unlikely coming together is made worse and I mean really worse by the scene at the police station where Dale apologises to Jay and they bond. THEY BOND. The single worst scene in the film.
And yet. Townsend is a director of promise. Ebert himself gave it a very decent review. There is an effective and well put together prologue to bring the audience up to speed on world trade agreements post World War II. The scenes of protest are well staged with a score (by Massive Attack no less) that add much to proceedings. The scenes of anonymous, jackboot wearing police chimes with images of the police we saw on the streets of Ferguson for example. André Benjamin pockets the film as Django with a very freewheeling performance that gets under the skin of the character he plays. More characters like this would have resulted in a better film. Dr. Maric also gets a good scene where he rails at his fellow attendees disinterest in lower prices for medicine for people in developing countries. As debut films go this is at least an interesting one. A somewhat crowbarred in happy ending seems unearned but Townsend cuts through this quite well with an epilogue that makes clear makes that in the larger context the small victory presented is moot. But as Django puts it at one point: “A week ago, nobody knew what the WTO was. They still don’t know what it is, but now at least they know it’s bad.” As good a win as there is. This perfectly sums up Townsends aims and as a film it is a partial success. There is more than enough here to suggest that Townsend had the makings of a decent filmmaking career ahead of him.
Getting back to that conversation in Belfast and the discussion got around to how close Townsend came to being a superstar. The lead in a follow up to Interview with the Vampire that bombed. As Dorian Gray in the promising but critically panned The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. The role of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy that slipped away at the eleventh hour. He was also one half of a Hollywood power couple with Charlize Theron. Plus you know, he was one of our own. He has also done very good work as well. Charming in Shooting Fish and About Adam, and good also in Michael Winterbottom’s superb Wonderland. If Wikipedia is to be believed Townsend is now living the quiet life in Costa Rica with his wife and children with only an occasional TV show appearance to show for a career that once held such promise. He may well have lost interest. If Battle in Seattle is to serve as a career epitaph, there are filmmakers still spending millions of dollars of studios’ money making far worse. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, it is perhaps because it is. As decent a debut as it is, a follow up film would show how much he has grown as a filmmaker. Promise only shows so much. Perhaps we will never know.