May 4, 2007, - 3:37 pm
By Debbie Schlussel
If you see a Muslim immigrant engaged in suspicious behavior, you should (pick one):
a) report it to the FBI and be on the lookout for other behavior by this individual and his associates;
b) cash in your portfolio, fly to Vegas on Hooters Air, and bet on the likelihood of the next terrorist attack;
c) terrorists? Who cares about terrorists? Time to watch the game tonight,and then it’s time for beers and a meeting with my bookie; or
d) head to your local Christian-Jewish-Muslim interfaith vegan lesbian women’s basketball and dialogue club, so you can all focus on our common love of fattoush. Why focus on our differences when we all have in common things like going to the bathroom and blowing our noses?
If you answered anything but a), then “Civic Duty“–which comes out in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, today–is not meant for you, as you are already doing the right thing to make this a better world. (It will be released in the rest of the country in the next two weeks.) If you answered a), then “Civic Duty” is there to tell you what a crazy, bigoted loser and Nazi you are for daring to think such a thing.
While Civic Duty is new to theaters, in fact the same movie was already released in 8 years ago. It’s called “Arlington Road.” The 1999 film is well done, while Civic Duty isn’t. The former is riveting and thrilling, while the latter is boring and slow, moving in stops and starts. And one other key difference:
In Arlington Road, the main character who suspects his neighbors are terrorists is portrayed sympathetically, and he is 100% right. In Civic Duty, the main character who suspects his neighbor is a terrorist is a jerk, and he seems to be 100% wrong.
So, why the different portrayals? Well, it could have a lot to do with the identity of the suspected terrorists. In “Arlington Road,” they are good Christians and right-wing terrorists. In “Civic Duty,” neighbor Gabe Hassan (played by Khaled Abol Naga) is an Arab Muslim. And how dare we suspect our Arab Muslim neighbors of terrorism . . . even if all the signs are there.
Other than that, the plots are almost identical and the similarities eerie. Both main characters suspect their neighbors are terrorists, both have homely blonde love interests who doubt them and get all bitchy about it, and both involve contact with doubting FBI agents who warn them to stay away.
I watched “Arlington Road,” again, last night to refresh my memory and compare how Hollywood celebrates every kook who sees right-wing militia conpiracies everywhere, but denounces those who worry about the very real threat of Islamic terrorists in our midst.
The tagline of “Arlington Road”–appearing on the DVD cover–is: “Your Paranoia is Real.” The message on its movie posters is “Fear They Neighbor.” The message of “Civic Duty” is: “Your Suspicions About Strange Muslim Neighbors with Chemical Labs in Their Kitchens are Absurd.”
Then, there are the characters. Civic Duty’s Peter Krause plays an obnoxious accountant who is rude and paranoid. Not likeable at all. He’s a loser who can’t hold on to a job and is even mean to cheerful bank tellers. From the opening scene, we see him screaming at the bank employee because she dares to call an ATM an “ATM Machine.” After all, since the M stands for Machine, no-one but complete morons would call it an ATM Machine, and they deserve to be severely verbally abused for daring to utter that redundant term. Yes, this is the jerk who is suspicious about his new Arab Muslim neighbor.
Contrast that with Arlington Road’s protagonist, Jeff Bridges. He plays a sympathetic, gentle professor, whose adoring FBI agent wife was killed at a Ruby Ridge style fiasco. He’s struggling to move on and convince his young son he loves him. And he’s an expert on right-wing terrorist groups. So he knows what he’s talking about.
And the contrasts continue on throughout both movies. The key difference: While in Arlington Road, Bridges turns out to be 100% accurate that his neighbors are part of an extensive right-wing cell (which includes his students) that plots to blow up the J. Edgar Hoover Building (and frames him for it), Civic Duty’s accountant, Peter Krause, is mostly shown to be a crazed, violent nutcase, who suspects terrorist operations based on mistaken assumptions without much evidence of anything, but for his prejudice.
**** SPOILER ALERT ****
Yes, there is a teeny-tiny, possible confirmation at the end of the movie that the Muslim neighbor was, indeed, a terrorist. But it’s ambiguous. Krause breaks into his Muslim neighbor’s apartment. He follows him and searches his trash. He sees Hassan engaged in suspicious behavior, such as taking and keeping piles of empty ATM envelopes from various banks around town. And he sees that Hassan’s kitchen has been transformed into an extensive lab. Hassan explains it away, saying he is a chemistry grad student studying how to further purify tap water by extracting Prussic acid from it.
At the end of the film, Krause with his Arab neighbor hostage, ends up in a police stand-off. The FBI tells him that his neighbor has been checked and cleared. Krause accidentally shoots and kills his wife, and he is in a mental hospital. We hear a newscast in which it is announced that a new terrorist attack has taken place in which people are poisoned from licking ATM envelopes laced Cyanide from Prussic Acid.
So, was the neighbor a terrorist? We arent’ really told. And “Civic Duty” wants to you to wonder. The makers of this film want you to doubt yourself when you think about reporting Muslims behaving suspiciously. It’s not that they are terrorist, it’s that you are nuts. That’s quite the opposite of Arlington Road’s message.
Aside from the boredom inspired by Civic Duty, it’s not believable. It doesn’t help much when a movie set in the U.S. features mostly actors with Canadian accents (it was shot in Canada). And the use of President Bush’s speeches is excessive. We get it–Bush is inspiring paranoia and violence against Muslims, says this film. Plus, the movie is outdated. It’s supposed to take place just after 9/11. The whole flick seems like old news annoyingly attempting irrelevant didactics.
If there’s one thing I think the movie did get right, it’s the incompetence of the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts. While Krause’s character suspects the wrong kind of terrorist plot, he’s right that there was one. But, instead, the demeaning FBI agent (Richard Schiff) misses it all and attacks him for his zealotry.
But the only zealotry in connection with this film should be your zealous avoidance of wasting your ten bucks on it at the theater.
Instead of “Civic Duty,” its producers would have been better advised to remake “Arlington Road” with Muslim terrorists in place of Tim Robbins’ and Joan Cusack’s right-wing Christian ones.
Tags: accountant, Arlington Road, ATM, bank, basketball, Bush, Canada, cheerful bank tellers, Civic Duty, Debbie Schlussel, Fear They Neighbor, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Gabe Hassan, gentle professor, Hassan, J. Edgar Hoover Building, Jeff Bridges, Joan Cusack, Khaled Abol Naga, Krause, Los Angeles, New York, obnoxious accountant, paranoia, Peter Krause, President, Richard Schiff, sympathetic, Tim Robbins, United States