- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2007


“The Kingdom,” a film conceived after a 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia that left 19 Americans dead, belongs to a new wave of Hollywood movies that are using the uncertainties and confusion of the post-September 11 world as their backdrop.

However, director Peter Berg is adamant that while politics and religion play a significant part in his latest film, due in theaters tomorrow, the primary objective is simple: to entertain.

“I don’t believe that people go to films to be educated,” Mr. Berg says, “and if you’re too heavy-handed with any message, you’re probably going to put people off.”

Starring Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner and Chris Cooper, “The Kingdom” follows a team of FBI agents sent to Saudi Arabia to probe a bomb attack targeting American citizens.

The film studies the complexities of investigators from two alien cultures attempting to work together for a common cause and was born from Mr. Berg’s knowledge of the 1996 Khobar Towers attack, a truck bombing on a U.S. Air Force apartment complex in Dhahran that killed 19 U.S. citizens and wounded 371.

“Khobar led to the FBI trying to work for the first time with Saudi law enforcement, which proved to be a complicated investigative effort,” Mr. Berg says. “I thought it would be a fascinating idea for a film, to watch how American and Arab cultures navigate differences to try to work together.”

Mr. Berg, an actor and filmmaker whose directing credits include “Friday Night Lights,” says the challenge was trying to entertain without straying into the realms of naked jingoism.

“I wanted to make a film that responded to the times that we were living in, a film that in 15 years my son, who’s 7, will be able to watch and have a unique and a fair representation and understanding of what life was like for all of us who were living in this time,” he says.

“Because of that, I wanted to make a film that dealt with the Middle East and dealt with religious extremism, but I first and foremost wanted to make a film that people would be thrilled at, people would be excited about.

“That was the promise I made to the studio. Because believe me, the studios aren’t rushing out to make educational films about the Middle East.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Berg admits that part of the film’s objective is to educate U.S. moviegoers.

“I was pretty shocked to find out that many people don’t understand that 15 of 19 hijackers at 9/11 were not from Iraq,” he says. “They were from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia.”

Although the film’s desert sequences were all shot in Arizona, where temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees, Mr. Berg visited Saudi Arabia in the course of his research.

He was granted a visa only after several meetings with the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al Faisal. Traveling to Saudi Arabia was essential, Mr. Berg says, and the result is a “balanced film.”

The film was released after extensive screenings in the U.S. and Europe, including one before a large Muslim audience.

At an early screening in America, however, Mr. Berg says, he worried about the audience reaction.

“The audience started clapping very intensely and very aggressively, and I sat there thinking I’d … made something that appealed to the most bloodthirsty, violent, militaristic component of our culture, and that was never the intention.

“Afterward we had this focus group of 30 people and everyone sort of talking about the film in very emotional terms, and they were responding to the message at the end.

“They were finding the film provocative, at which point we were like, ‘Maybe we should think a bit more about how we release this film and put a little more thought into it.’

“That was followed up by a very intense screening process, which included a European screening with a pretty heavy Muslim population, where we experienced the same reaction.”

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