The History Place - Movie Review

The Kingdom

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

Hours after news of a terrorist attack on the Western residential compound in Riyadh reaches FBI headquarters, Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) whispers something in Forensic Specialist Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner's) ear. She immediately stops crying. Fleury and Mayes lost a special friend in the attack, which is modeled on the real life incident of May 12, 2003.

Fleury leads a Bureau team into Saudi Arabia to show them how it's done American-style. Unfortunately for the FBI agents, their Saudi counterparts are less than impressed or even welcoming. Only after Fleury persuades one of the Kingdom's 5,000 princes that he and Saudi Colonel Faris Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom) are the team to bring the bombers to justice, does the investigation finally grow legs. Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman play the two additional FBI agents who, together with Riyadh's finest, unravel the web. As they work their way toward the spider in its center, the action becomes intense.

Although inspired by real events, The Kingdom is really an action, adventure, buddy film. Fleury and Al-Ghazi grow close in the heat of battle, providing the film's few lighter and warmer moments. Both are family men with young sons, a similarity that spans racial and cultural gaps. Their shared dedication and incorruptibility build additional bridges, making their collaboration possible and their friendship believable.

As this review goes to press it remains to be seen how big a box office hit The Kingdom will be. Crowds in the Philadelphia area during its opening weekend were encouraging. If the film does break through the glass ceiling of political realism that held down audience size for films reviewed in this space with similar themes such as Munich, World Trade Center, United 93 and Syriana--thanks will be due to the chemistry between Foxx and Barhom and the quick-cut action sequences that keep viewers on their seat edges.

Additionally, fans of TV cop series focusing on forensic science, of which there have been several popular ones in recent years, will be fascinated by the details of a crime investigation occurring, as characterized by the film's writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, "on Mars." Chris Cooper's character leads the Saudi team slogging through the muck and debris of the bomb crater to determine what sort of vehicle transported the deadly package into the compound. Jennifer Garner's character handles the wet work: retrieving the trivial items that killed most of the corpses. These include children's jacks and marbles, items which later are highly significant to the crime's solution.

The artifacts of orthodox Muslim culture are a constant irritant to the agents. For instance, Garner's Janet Mayes cannot touch the dead bodies of Muslim men. In fact, even some American survivors are less than cooperative at first. "We should have gotten out of here long ago," says a grieving widower, before slamming the door in Foxx's face. This is yet another reminder of the point made by the film's opening titles, which provide a pocket history of the rise of the House of Saud and its Kingdom. Those titles end with the admonition that Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil producer and America is the world's largest oil consumer. We are locked in a deadly dance. Neither partner cares much for the other's values, culture, or way of life.

Only as the FBI team and the Colonel's men work together does their shared professionalism surmount these differences. But beneath the level of the two leaders, no love is ever lost between the two sides. As the investigation chews its way up the terrorist food chain, low-level fanatics frequently accuse their Saudi police adversaries of treachery, betrayal and heresy. The insults hit home.

In the end, the battered survivors of the FBI expeditionary force debrief back home at the Bureau's HQ. Harking back to the beginning, one of them asks Fleury what he said to Mayes to make her stop crying. "I told her we'd kill them all," replies Foxx's character.

The scene shifts to Saudi Arabia. The grandson of a top terrorist is asked by his mother, "What did your grandfather whisper in your ear before he died?" Replies the boy, "He told me not to worry. We'll kill them all."

There all resemblance to the classic Hollywood "buddy film" grinds to a screeching halt. Welcome back, director Peter Berg seems to say, to the real post-9/11 world. And that's how the audience leaves the theater.

Rated R for violence and language.

Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost and Associate Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. With his daughter Claire, he recently wrote a young adult novel on 19th and 21st century terrorism, which is excerpted at and available at

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