The FBI is the lead organization for investigating terrorist attacks on U.S. interests abroad. And when an insidious, two-bomb attack on an American oil-company compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, kills 100 and wounds 200 more, hard-charging FBI agent Ronald Fleury can barely restrain his zeal to inspect the carnage—more specifically, to bring its terrorist masterminds to justice.
Fleury and his team of three forensic specialists—Janet Mayes, Grant Sykes and Adam Leavitt—have a scant five days to piece together the who and the what of the brutal bombing. And it's hardly a textbook investigation. The chaotic quest for truth that ensues (marred by, among other things, another terrorist strike, inept officials, the cultural divide and the Americans' own arrogance) feels like one part CSI: Riyadh, one part Black Hawk Down.
The lone bright spot in the investigation is a gruff-but-dedicated Saudi police officer, Col. Al-Ghazi, who serves as the team's liaison. He equips the agents to navigate the intricacies of Saudi culture and, gradually, after a rough start, he and Fleury become close friends and risk their lives for one another.
Themes of family, friendship and courage permeate The Kingdom. Both Fleury and Al-Ghazi are shown as fathers who care tenderly for their children. Talking with students at his elementary-age son's school, Fleury describes the birth of his son as "the best day of my life." Underscoring that sentiment, two poignant scenes show the FBI agent talking to the surviving children of parents who've been killed.
Fierce bravery is a characteristic of Fleury's team in general, especially in the film's conflict-filled climax, where the Americans are doggedly committed to pursuing the terrorists. Likewise, a principled FBI director stands up to bullying by a mean-spirited U.S. government official. Kindness is occasionally evident in the team's actions, such as when Mayes gives candy to a little girl who's just witnessed the shootings of several people.
Al-Ghazi convinces government officials to stop torturing a police officer he knows is innocent. Technically, he bends some rules to give Fleury's team access to the information they need; but his willingness to do so is framed as an act of courage in the face of stifling bureaucracy and restrictive Muslim laws. Fleury returns the favor by convincing a Saudi prince to give the officer more investigatory power.
The film's opening montage describes key moments in Saudi Arabia's recent history, and sets up the overarching context for the story as a battle between traditional Muslims intent on preserving a pure Islamic culture and oil-hungry sheiks and princes who've invited the "infidels" (read: Americans) into the Kingdom. The terrorists are shown to be motivated by their allegiance to Islam; they repeatedly make statements such as "All glory to Allah." One homicidal bomber utters the phrase immediately before blowing up himself and many innocent victims.
The film also portrays Al-Ghazi and several others as followers of Islam who do not share the extremists' views. We witness him praying with his family, while another character, caring for his apparently sick elderly father, says, "Peace be with you and the blessings of Allah."
Additional spiritual references include a grieving American (whose wife was killed) angrily asking the Saudi police, "Is this what Allah wants?" and, "Does Allah love your kids more than mine?" Another American makes a joke about whose side Allah is on.
An obnoxious embassy official uses the fact that Mayes is wearing a T-shirt when she arrives in Saudi Arabia to harass her. He tells her to "dial down the boobies" when a Saudi prince shows up, and he throws a shawl over her upper torso. Leavitt reads what appears to be a Complete Idiot's Guide to either Islam or the Quran, and quizzes his fellow team members about how many virgins a Muslim martyr can expect to find waiting for him in heaven. Passing reference is made to a "circle jerk" and a "queer."
The Kingdom opens with images from the first two terrorist attacks. A suicide bomber blows himself up on a softball field while men machine-gun fleeing players—including a father in front of his son—from a pickup truck. (They're subsequently shot by police.) A much larger bomb then claims the lives of many rescuers who've just arrived. We glimpse bloodied bodies and two destroyed buildings reminiscent of images from the Oklahoma City bombing.
After a car bomb sends an SUV with Fleury's team inside careening upside-down across the freeway, terrorists kidnap a team member from the wreckage. Gunfire leads to a car chase, which leads to more gunfire, then to a prolonged urban shootout. By my count, at least 25 people are shot and killed in this extended scene, and several more meet their end in grenade and rocket explosions. The violence is nonstop, frenetic, intense and realistic, if not particularly gory.
One of the most troubling shootings involves Fleury's team killing an adolescent boy who's repeatedly shot a Saudi police officer in the face and neck. This takes place in front of the boy's family and other young children. The family's grandfather then reveals a machine gun and is subsequently peppered with bullets in view of everyone.
More close-quarter violence involves a fight to the death between Mayes and a terrorist who's on the verge of decapitating a hostage. He shoves her brutally into walls and furniture, and the feral fistfight between them only ends when she stabs him in the crotch, then skull.
Other violence includes more fistfights, grenade blasts and a painful scene in which a police officer suspected to be a terrorist is beaten severely by his superiors. Mayes' forensic skills involve examining corpses, and several camera shots zoom in for close-ups of her pulling shrapnel out of mangled bodies. Mention is made of a young boy who watched his mom die after she was shot in the face. And we watch bombmakers (including an adolescent boy) constructing vest-bombs filled with explosives, nails, screws and marbles. A group of young Saudis are shown playing violent video games.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Teenagers are shown smoking at a video arcade. Al-Ghazi also smokes. Sykes talks about his affection for Pabst Blue Ribbon bear and Schlitz malt liquor.
Other Negative Elements
Personal vengeance seems to motivate both Al-Ghazi and Fleury. The policeman tells Fleury privately that when they catch the terrorists, he doesn't want to ask any questions. He simply wants to kill them. When Al-Ghazi asks Fleury if he understands, the American replies simply, "Yes, I do."
The Americans' can-do attitude often degenerates into sneering condescension and criticism as Saudi regulations hamstring their investigation. Their constant sarcasm and general disdain for the Muslim culture lives down to the "ugly American" stereotype. And at times, the Americans seem to go out of their way to offend the Saudis.
Fleury extorts a diplomat in Washington into helping him get to Saudi Arabia as quickly as possible by threatening to release sensitive information about Saudi royals' financial connections to terrorism.
Terrorism at the hands of Islamic extremists is one of the defining issues of our time. Like some other recent films that have attempted to give viewers a gritty glimpse into terrorist activity and motivation (A Mighty Heart, Syriana, United 93), The Kingdom offers a complex—if bloody and profane—portrait of Islam and the Middle East. We see Muslims whose faith moves them to blow up their enemies. And we see Muslims whose faith motivates them to care for their families and denounce terrorism.
In so doing, The Kingdom attempts to convince us that we're all essentially similar, regardless of our culture. The most obvious and positive example of this is Fleury's and Al-Ghazi's devotion to their families. More darkly, however, the film suggests that we're also the same in our lust for vengeance. Both Al-Ghazi and Fleury want those who planned the attacks dead. It's clear in Al-Ghazi's case—and implied in Fleury's—that they have no desire to wait for the legal system to dispense justice (though neither ever kills in cold blood).
[Spoiler Warning] That implication is absolutely rammed home when we learn that Fleury and a dying terrorist have at different points in the story whispered the same chilling words of violent consolation: "We're going to kill them all."
Make no mistake: This is an action movie, and audiences will likely resonate with Fleury's feelings as they pay good money to enjoy seeing the bad guys—in this case Muslim terrorists—get what's coming to them. Why do I think so? When Jennifer Garner's character, Janet Mayes, stabs a would-be executioner in the groin and head, the advance-screening audience I watched the movie with laughed and clapped wildly. And director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Rundown) says he experienced the exact same thing. He told Entertainment Weekly, "I was nervous [The Kingdom] would be perceived as a jingoist piece of propaganda, which I certainly didn't intend." After audiences applauded terrorists being gunned down, he wondered, "Am I experiencing American bloodlust?"
Maybe. But The Kingdom seems to want it both ways. It raises the question of whether violence, even in the name of justice, can ever resolve intractable conflicts, or whether it simply perpetuates yet another bloody cycle of retribution. At the same time, it eagerly embraces the very behavior it supposedly critiques—prompting moviegoers to cheer all the way.