The New York Times, 6/18/07


“The Kingdom,” a coming film about the F.B.I.’s pursuit of Islamic bad guys in a not particularly hospitable Saudi Arabia, appears on the surface to tread on treacherous and polarized political ground. But after a test screening before a deliberately diversified audience in the London borough of Wandsworth earlier this year, the director Peter Berg (shown above, left, with actor Ashraf Barhom) began to suspect that his terror thriller might survive its birth into a contentious world, after all.

Asked who would rate the film “excellent,” eight Muslim men and women in traditional dress — presumably some of the picture’s toughest customers — were among those who raised their hands, Mr. Berg said over breakfast here last week.

Asked why, another young Muslim woman responded with an unexpectedly salty term for high-powered action.

By Mr. Berg’s account, the screening audience in a working-class British neighborhood had bought into the film’s notion that conventional movie values — buddy bonding, boisterous action and a relentless determination to get the bad guys — could bridge the deepest cultural chasm. Universal Pictures will soon discover whether ticket buyers around the world feel the same.

In a somewhat unusual gambit Universal marketers have begun to punctuate the summer movie season with extensive promotional screenings of “The Kingdom,” though it is not scheduled for release until Sept. 28. Fox successfully did something similar last year with its off-center comedy “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

Universal’s idea is to show that however little viewers may hunger for movies about real terror — “Syriana,” “World Trade Center” and the Universal-distributed “Munich” and “United 93” found limited audiences for their downbeat, introspective takes — “The Kingdom” is different. It’s Middle Eastern politics with considerably less agonizing.

Cooked up four years ago by Mr. Berg; Michael Mann, who is a producer on the film; and the writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, “The Kingdom” is intended, in Mr. Carnahan’s words, to figure out “what would a murder investigation look like on Mars?”

The film follows a team of F.B.I. investigators, led by Jamie Foxx’s special agent Ronald Fleury, as they break political barriers and cultural taboos to investigate a bombing in Saudi Arabia not unlike the real-life attacks on Western residential compounds in Riyadh. Those occurred in May 2003, just as Mr. Berg began working on “The Kingdom.”

The film’s buddy is a Saudi police colonel played by Ashraf Barhom (“Paradise Now”). Its baddie is the bomb-building leader of an Islamic terror cell. The heroes’ modus operandi carries a whiff of “Rambo” and more than a touch of Mr. Mann’s trademark creation, the classic police show “Miami Vice.”

“We wanted to get guys who do procedural homicide work,” Mr. Mann explained in a telephone interview. “Two of those guys from the most oppositional backgrounds you can imagine, a Saudi cop and an African-American from Washington, would have more things in common, wanting to make bad things not happen, than all the cultural differences between them.”

Viewers conditioned by the self-doubting Israeli assassins of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” or the mind-bending complexities of Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana” may be startled by Mr. Berg’s more kinetic approach. Mr. Foxx’s character is perfectly willing to join a T-shirted Jennifer Garner and colleagues blasting their way through a trouble-infested Saudi neighborhood when the situation calls for it, local standards of female propriety notwithstanding.

A lack of filmmaking infrastructure and precedents ruled out shooting in Saudi Arabia. (Even “Lawrence of Arabia,” whose story spanned the Arabian desert, was largely shot in Morocco and Spain.) But Mr. Berg, 43, known to many for his portrayal of Dr. Billy Kronk on the series “Chicago Hope” and who is an executive producer on the television series “Friday Night Lights,” still pursued an air of authenticity.

With the help of a Saudi friend, he visited the kingdom, though he received no official support from the Saudi government, he said. The film was shot in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, as well as in Washington and Arizona.

Initially several Saudis were retained to provide cultural advice, though one, Mr. Berg said, was distanced from the project after he developed a crush on Ms. Garner. Rich Klein of the Kissinger McLarty Associates consulting firm was a key political adviser.

“It became an exercise in honesty,” said Mr. Klein, a former State Department official who patrolled matters as small as the styling of the characters’ thobes — long-sleeved Saudi robes — or the likely back-story of an American diplomat played by Jeremy Piven.

The Saudi embassy’s press office in Washington did not respond to queries about the film.

In editing “The Kingdom,” Mr. Berg said he tinkered only slightly to keep the movie’s sympathies from straying into a zone that might seem unacceptably anti-Muslim or pro-Western. A softer scene, for instance, portrays a Muslim family praying. It went in and out of the movie several times, Mr. Berg said, but finally remained in, as necessary leavening.

“Everybody wants good,” Scott Stuber, the film’s other producer, said, speaking of the prayer scene. “It’s important for the good people to band together.”

Mr. Carnahan said he wrote drafts that were far more political and “nihilistic” than the finished film. And he fretted for a time that Mr. Berg’s insistence on honoring basic values of the buddy-cop genre might be “dumbing this movie down.” But, Mr. Carnahan said, he also came to believe that wrapping his notions about shared responsibility for the world’s ills “in conventional movie plot and conventional movie characters” was the way to reach people.

According to at least some independent evidence, that is beginning to occur. “The Kingdom” drew applause at a recent screening in Los Angeles, and a fair number of whoops when Saudi and American heroes scored on the movie villains.

And, not unlike “300” — an action film about ancient Spartans that earlier this year stirred unexpected debate about whether it was pro- or anti-President Bush — “The Kingdom” has already provoked some conflicting opinions about its real message.

“About time we had a pro-American movie,” started one thread among several chewing over the film’s sympathies on an message board recently. By contrast, Mr. Berg said, one of the traditionally dressed Muslim women at his London screening said she had read the movie as being “about the absurdity of military solutions” to Middle Eastern problems.

For Universal, which spent more than $70 million to make the film and will invest tens of millions more to market it, the task will be to keep such ferment from overwhelming its own message: that even the most divisive situations can be served by a popcorn movie, if done right.

“We now accept the fact that this is the dynamic of the world we live in,” said Marc Shmuger, Universal’s chairman, speaking of the attempt by Mr. Berg and company to plant a genuine entertainment on top of an all-too real problem.

“I love that,” he added. “I really respond to that.”