• The Siege (1998) presaged 9/11.
• One of its writers has a new novel due out that predicts a pandemic and quarantine
• How life imitates art . . and can make prophets out of artists
The Siege was a box office bomb, if you’ll pardon the expression. But — as one of its creators points out — three years later, after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, The Siege became one of the most-rented movies in America. Just like Contagion (1995) is now.
Starring Denzel Washington, Annette Benning and Tony Shalhoub, The Siege showed New York City plagued by Islamic terrorists. Violence escalates. The borough of Brooklyn gets cordoned off by the National Guard, people of suspicious ethnicity, dress and skin color get rounded up and, ultimately, lessons are learned about tarring whole peoples with extremist brushes.
By the time a press junket was held in NY before the release of the film, voices were being raised about its possible stereotyping. In their interviews with me, the principals were united in their belief that The Siege was out to explode (there I go again) stereotypes, not reinforce them.
Check out this 2:50 piece on CNN about it, and I’ll tell you more on the other side.
Where is Denzel when we need him?
So, you know these press junkets were like assembly lines, each reporter getting 5 to 8 minutes with each actor, just enough to skim the surface, make a 2- to 5-minute feature about the movie. In this case, everyone was well prepared to discuss the issues raised by The Siege. Nowadays it’s de rigueur in some circles to bash celebrities who take positions on politics and public affairs. These particular folks are smart and when they have something to say, I’ll listen.
As someone who has become a big fan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, what a jolt it was to dust off this VHS cassette and see a young Tony Shalhoub. If you didn’t know that he was the son of a Lebanese immigrant who grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, well, I don’t think I knew that either in 1998. But I do know that the production notes handed out at the junket certainly mentioned his Lebanese ancestry. I specifically remember thinking, “Well, it’s nice they cast an Arab actor, but I sure hope his career builds beyond this kind of ‘sidekick’ role.”
Here’s the eerie part: director Ed Zwick’s co-writer on the film, Lawrence Wright, recently wrote a piece in the NY Times with the headline: Lawrence Wright’s New Pandemic Novel Wasn’t Supposed to be Prophetic. He reminds us how prescient The Siege turned out to be. His novel, The End of October, to be published shortly, was written before the Covid-19 virus emerged, and is about a worldwide pandemic caused by a flu-like virus.
I really, really want to know what his next project is.