In actor Townsend’s directorial debut, a team of well-coordinated, nonviolent protestors take the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle by storm, outfoxing the local police and spurring them to violent means to restore order.
Battle in Seattle manages to survive in the no man’s land between documentary and drama. Townsend confidently and realistically stages the angry confrontations between riot police and demonstrators. But we learn no more about the WTO than we knew at the start. We need more movies and books to take us inside the specifics of global organizations like the WTO—but here the WTO reads as an undefined Evil Corporate Cabal. The film’s own modest attempts to texture its critique often get lost in the shaky-cam theatrics.
As a drama, the film occasionally dips into a ready-made melodrama—the cynical TV reporter who comes to side with the demonstrators; the tough-but-vulnerable activist; a scene where a cop and a protestor share a philosophical dialogue—hours after the cop has chased the protestor down. But even at its most manipulative—Theron plays a pregnant cop’s wife who finds herself on the wrong end of police power—the movie features uniformly well-crafted performances.
And, better, Townsend does a nice job of exploring the essential drama of the protests—the enduring question of when (and whether) violence is justified in response to injustice.