I mean, well, I’m not a real one. I’m certainly very critical of films, but I’m no Pauline Kael. I’m not even Peter Travers. No one, in all likelihood, is going to ask me to replace Roger Ebert anytime soon (scratch that – the guest hosts they’ve been having on that show seem to be selected a bit randomly. Wait, a bit randomly? It’s like they’re pulling names out of Men’s Fitness and Cheerleading Today’s mailing lists and putting pancake makeup on them. The E! Channel finds more qualified and substantial hosts, and they do most of their shopping right outside of Dr. 90210’s waiting room).
But I digress. My point is that despite my insubstantial writing resume, I consider my a bit of a good study (fine, mediocre savant) on movie criticism. As you might’ve noticed if you’ve been to this site more than once or twice, I have an endless interest in What Critics Love and What Critics Hate. Why have they gathered fawningly around one movie while ignoring, sometimes glaringly, a similar one? Why do they call some movies with $35 million box office grosses “a triumphant success” and others “a financial disaster?” You’d be more than hard-pressed to get one to admit it, but it usually has more to it than just the cost it took to make the movie.
Most people feel they already know the answers to these questions, giving one of three answers:
1. Movie critics are staunch liberals touting films that coincide with their way of thinking.
2. Movie critics are overly-educated intellectual bigots intent on filling the world with their snobbery.
3. Some combination of 1 and 2.
It’s unfair, of course. But like most things, there’s a grain of truth to it, it’s just that it’s rare to see a real example where the critical consensus is so obviously gathered in one corner that it becomes quite obvious what’s going on. And this brings us to The Kingdom.
Reviews have been startlingly mixed for a movie as well-directed as The Kingdom is. It has a lot of things critics like: relevant, politically-charged subject matter, a jittery documentary style carried off with great aplomb, certain actors (the four leads are always great favorites, along with critical darlings like Jeremy Piven, Kyle Chandler, and Paradise Now’s Ashraf Barhom and Ali Suliman), and the urge to dig a little deeper into the subject matter than a standard popcorn flick would. But maybe that urge wasn’t strong enough to win them over.
It’s a stereotype, sure, but critics love “films.” They love movies that turn genres on their heads, or that seem willing to leave the action set pieces at the door and just focus on issues for a while. Not many people are willing to see these sorts of movies, because, frankly, action set pieces are kind of fun and if they’ve paid good money to see a comedy, they usually like to see an actual comedy and not a black mockumentary/drama disguised in comedy clothes. Critics hate this about people. They want them to not just like these movies, but also be well-versed in the backstory of the movie so it can be discussed afterwards. “I thought we could discuss the differences I’m Not There presents between the real and the public Bob Dylan - ten minutes on Wikipedia wouldn’t kill you?” For this reason, movie critics are not fun people to go to movie with.
The Kingdom is not a "film." It is not a deep thinker whose meanings will unfold before you as the weeks since you watched the movie pass. You will not remark in ten years how The Kingdom changed your whole view on U.S relations with Saudi Arabia (well, I guess that depends on how stupid your opinions are right now). But it’s also not without social commentary or political gravitas. That’s just not its main intention.
This annoys critics. Critics love context, meaning behind films, particularly something applicable to a particular political situation of the day – and yes, one that perhaps disparages the current U.S. President. What’s ironic is that while they appreciate subtext so deeply, they’re always quick to place these movies into the broadest possible category. The Kingdom has been repeatedly compared unfavorably with Syriana, a movie filled with politically-charged subtext. But critics never really appreciated that Syriana was a broader statement on decades of mercenary U.S.-Saudi relations, they saw it more as an criticism of an oil-thirsty regime. What’s more, by comparing the two movies, it only reveals their prejudice of putting all movies about Saudis into one box, the equivalent of comparing The Color Purple with Soul Plane.
Syriana is a movie about oil in which the subject matter is much more important than the story line, which is why such long periods go by in the movie in which nothing happens. The Kingdom is a movie about a terrorist in which a bunch of American hardworking good guys fight off American bureaucracy in order to travel to Saudi Arabia and join the Saudi hardworking good guys, fight off Saudi bureaucracy, and then go fight the actual Saudi terrorists.
The Kingdom is not without real world-changing type intention, but its real intention is intense, gripping filmmaking, which is frankly a lesson the makers of Syriana could have learned. It is neither cheap popcorn fun nor political commentary, but a happy combination of the two, bringing the thrill of political drama to the visceral fun of a bullets-flying action flick. It elevates its genre – not a lot, not poignantly or gracefully, but it strains for greater things, greater truths, while still allowing its heroes to chuck grenades around without discretion. And critics hate that. They wish the movie would be one or the other - either mindless fun or deliberate political commentary, ideally anti-war commentary. And the idea of having all these soldiers come in and shoot guns around and prove to be the good guys - well, that's just not acceptable. This is our modern world and our modern war, and if you don't have something mean to say, well, don't say anything at all. A movie that finishes with fairly positive impression of U.S. military figures? Well, that's just jingoism. In fact, critics have even been using the word "jingoism," which is code for "a political opinion so far unlike my own it must be idiotic and dangerous."
Frankly, I could use a lot more movies like The Kingdom at the theater these days. I could use some good guys.
And, for the record, I really like Peter Travers.