"Terrorist" is a term that the big army uses to refer to the little army. The Siege illustrates that in many cases, depending on the context, the big army is the same as the little army.
The movie begins by showing us actual footage of the aftermath of the bombing of an American military compound in Saudi Arabia, with clips of Clinton condemning the act. As Clinton promises retaliation, the person believed to be responsible, Sheik Ahmed Bin Talal (Ahmed Ben Larby), is kidnapped from the desert kingdom and brought to the U.S. (apparently in violation of international law, which I don't understand given the Noriega and Mir Aimal Kasi incidents). This sparks an Islamic retaliation where devout followers of the Sheik start bombing buses and theatres so they can get him released. FBI agent Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) is in charge of taking out the terrorist cells, but after the first two bombings, the president invokes the war powers act and martial law is imposed in the city. This results a complete suspension of constitutional "rights" as the military, led by General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), takes over.
Devereaux's methods don't suit Hubbard but since the General is in command, there is no choice. The movie portrays the persecution of Arab-Americans by Devereaux and the military, with mixed results. Director Edward Zwick does not try to diminish the authenticity of what would happen if martial law were imposed in a populated city (even though not much time is spent on this aspect of the film) and the results are effective at times.
The acting is pretty good--in particular Denzel Washington's portrayal of Hubbard is excellent. Some of the lines are highly memorable, including the one about shredding the constitution, illustrating the point that when one uses terrorist tactics to fight terrorists, the other side has already won. The passion in Washington's voice really comes off well. I think this scene, which is followed by the execution of the suspected terrorist, is the most powerful in the movie. Bruce Willis is decent as an arrogant general, but he appears to be hiding a constant smirk. Annette Bening plays the part of a confused American with loyalties to both the American and Islamic sides fairly well.
One of the things that works in this movie is the basis for the plot: As the movie progresses, Hubbard learns that the terrorists were taught how to kill by the U.S. Military in a plan to depose Saddam Hussein (it should be pointed out that during the Iran/Iraq war, it was the U.S. that enabled Hussein [*] to acquire the deadly weapons it accuses Iraq of possessing). But when the operation was pulled out suddenly, on a political whim, this leads to the militants being stranded and massacred by the Iraqi forces. I say all this is because this is an extremely plausible explanation for past and future Islamic terrorist attacks and suggests that the root of all these terror lies within the forces that unleashed it in the first place (in fact, the Kasi incident might well be an instance of this scenario).
The ending is a bit too quick for my tastes. The identity of the final cell is not a big surprise, and how it is taken down is a bit of an anti-climax. Other than that, The Siege is an interesting and thought-provoking film and definitely worth the matinee fare.
*> - I have no idea why almost everyone uses Saddam Hussein's first name when addressing him in the media. I'm sure the Iraqi newspapers and politicians don't use "Bill" to refer to the U.S. President.
In the wake of the recent attacks on September 11, 2001, it's amazing how much foresight this movie had.