Talk About a Block Buster

John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

As Denzel Washington prepares to be blown off his feet, director Ed Zwick, in one of his typical asides, says, "This film was inspired by the last two lines of Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach.' "

For those who have forgotten those lines or, more likely, never learned them: "Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight/Where ignorant armies clash by night."

"Action!" yells Zwick.

Fingers or earplugs in ears, the crew members of "Against All Enemies" watch as a mortar goes off and Washington is pelted with newspaper, cork and silicon. He falls backward, his landing cushioned by a rubber mat that a set decorator has tweaked to match the surrounding asphalt.

"Cut!" Zwick says.

Zwick explains that after this scene--a bus explosion that occurs during the first third of the movie--Washington's character, an FBI agent, suffers from recurring bouts of tinnitus, which is associated with ringing of the ears, loss of balance and nausea. After the initial trauma, these effects can also be induced by stress. The things you learn on an Ed Zwick set.

"This piece is so cerebrally complex," says the film's co-producer, Lynda Obst, who might be talking about Zwick himself. He once brought her a book of John Donne's metaphysical poems. None of them actually applied to the film. He just wanted her to read them.

Zwick's homework for the cast has been a little more goal-oriented. He gave co-star Annette Bening John Le Carre's "The Little Drummer Girl" for insights into her character (a CIA agent), and she also met a female CIA case officer. Tony Shaloub, who plays Washington's partner, had to learn smatterings of Lebanese and immerse himself in Mideast politics. Washington studied for his role by becoming familiar with several FBI agents.

Zwick himself read 100 books and consulted with Justice Department officials and people involved in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation. Jeff Beatty, a former member of the Delta Force, is on set to oversee the dialogue and action for verisimilitude.

To what end? "Against All Enemies" is a sort of "What if?" movie, based on the premise that a terrorist campaign in New York City prompts officials to invoke martial law and apply the new anti-terrorist laws that are now on the books. One of the main themes here is that some of them are of troubling constitutionality. Complicating matters is the rivalry between the players in this drama, the FBI and the CIA, who have an ongoing battle over turf and methodology, also involving the rule of law. And then the Army steps in.

"We anthropomorphize the conflict," says Obst, meaning Washington (FBI), Bening (CIA) and, in a small but pivotal part, Bruce Willis (Army). "She has no respect for [Washington's] procedure and the flat-footed way the FBI goes about its business. He has no respect for the illegal way [the CIA] operates domestically and their complete disregard for American rule of law."

According to Beatty, the agencies have different agendas too. The CIA is in the intelligence gathering business. The FBI is in the business of jailing people. This conflict is played out in a dispute between Washington and Bening over how to handle a Lebanese informer, played by French-Tunisian actor Sami Bouagila.

There's more, much more, to this scenario, but Zwick, who's capable of finding nuances in almost anything, is quick to point out that "this isn't a tract. It's a thriller. I'm trying to put butts in the seats. I'm trying to have my cake and eat it."

What would Matthew Arnold have said?

"Against All Enemies" is one of the biggest films ever shot in New York. They've shut down the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges--and 42nd Street, twice. At one point, they filmed on the streets 24 days in a row. After nine weeks of shooting, Obst says she is no longer sure where the set ends and the city begins.

"When you lock down a street like this, you start thinking you're always in a lock-down and you walk down the street with your portable phone and get run over," Obst says. "It gives you the feeling of cinematic immunity that's very dangerous to your health."

Today the street in question is in Brooklyn, at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. It was here that the bus was blown up. Now, in the topsy-turvy scheduling typical of movie-making, they are shooting the scene before the explosion, just as earlier they had been shooting the aftermath, when Washington is blown off his feet.

Pre-tinnitus, Washington looks very together in a black trench coat. He is talking on a cell phone, negotiating with the hostage-takers on the bus. Beside him are Shaloub and Bening. Behind him is an armada of New York City Police Department patrol cars with their lights spinning.

"I understand that you don't want to talk to me," he says as Shaloub translates his words into Lebanese on another phone. "But are you willing to listen?"

Washington stumbles over a line. Then he does it again. He's annoyed.

"Will you get these people out of my sight lines?" he says, meaning some of the crew and onlookers. "These people, they're sunning themselves, joking around."

The scene finally completed, Washington retreats to his trailer, sitting on the steps in immaculate white shirt sleeves, smoking an enormous cigar. He leads the way inside, which, like many star trailers, has all the taste and personality of a hotel room. He works to keep the cigar going, though he doesn't work to keep the conversation going, at least initially.

Washington isn't issue-driven, the way Zwick or some of the other actors are. He's intent on specifics.

Of his character's negotiating posture, he says, you "stretch out time a little bit. Take the urgency out. 'I'm just a poor Joe like you. Anything I can do for you? I'm on your side.' Without saying all those things."

When it is pointed out that, at least according to Zwick, blacks are an anomaly in the FBI, he says, "I don't know what the numbers are. But, you know, it's the case with everything."

What gets Washington excited in spite of himself is the prospect of a coming project that he's already preparing for, a bio of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who spent 19 years in prison. He's been flying home to L.A. every week to see his family and to work out in the ring. He says he's been trying to keep his enthusiasm in check so as not to confuse himself as an actor. He also doesn't want to get too beefy or mess up his face.

"I've got tapes of Hurricane," he says. "You want to see them?"

He puts the tape in and watches as Carter levels his opponents, each in the first round. Washington runs the tape back and forth several times to see what did the damage. The left hook? Watch the short right--bam!

This is not to say that "Against All Enemies" doesn't engage Washington. He and Zwick are good friends--they first worked together on "Glory" (1989), for which he won a best supporting actor Oscar, and more recently on "Courage Under Fire" (1996). He also connects in a very personal way with New York, especially to 42nd Street--before it became a porno emporium and now Disneyland--where he would go as a kid to see movies (he was raised in nearby Mount Vernon). He does a fair job of naming some of the stops on the No. 2 train from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan.

"Pretty interesting having walked those streets and gone shopping and snuck out of school, and now they've got the street shut and there you are standing in the middle of it," he says, his eyes growing vague at the memory. "It's a trip."

The trip is more cerebral for Annette Bening. Dressed in slacks and a sweater and sporting a short, stylishly mussed hairdo, she is seated in a director's chair in the middle of the locked-down street. This has not been a big day for her acting-wise--later she will get the same bus shrapnel treatment Washington did, only her character is farther away from ground zero.

After some preamble regarding her husband, Warren Beatty, Bening gets down to business. She is very much wrapped up in the film's politics. She has the intense air of someone who's learned a few things and wants eagerly to pass them along.

"It's fun because it's in the papers every day," she says. "The premise of the movie somewhat parallels the World Trade Center bombing. The CIA had been involved in Afghanistan, pouring a lot of money into that war, and we got a lot of people out on visas that we had trained and supported. And some of those people were involved in the bombing of the Trade Center."

Bening is referring to the concept of "blowback," an amusingly colorful espionage term that describes the phenomenon of American-trained foreign operatives who come to the U.S. and exercise their dubious talents here. Their reasons for doing so are many. They might be disillusioned. They might have a problem with U.S. foreign policy. Among the more popular candidates for blowback are Middle Easterners--rebels fighting the Communist-backed regime in Afghanistan, Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein.

In "Against All Enemies," they are trying to secure the release of a sheik who may or may not be held by an arm of our government. Bening's character is motivated by the guilty knowledge that she, or at least her agency, is in part responsible for these people and their acts. When Bening says it's in the papers every day, obviously she's not talking about a bus being blown up in Brooklyn. She means the constitutional issues that are raised when the government combats domestic terrorism, or even the threat of it. She has been following the travails of a group of Kurds who have been thrown in jail under the government's anti-terrorist laws. According to her, they aren't even allowed to know what they are being charged with. She says that these men are in danger of being extradited back to Iraq, where they will face almost certain death.

"If we get this movie right," she says, "it's all very prescient in terms of what we are doing and what we have done with the different agencies of government to fight terrorism."

And with that, Bening is summoned to the negotiation scene and her uneasy alliance with the flat-footed FBI.

'I trust her as far as I could throw her," Shaloub says the following day.

It's amazing how much time, energy and money it takes to film him saying this. The production has moved to a park near the Brooklyn Bridge. It's filled with early-spring sunbathers who, in a demonstration of Obst's confusion between the city and the movie, turn out to be extras.

Ed Zwick, wearing a beard, baseball cap, T-shirt and blue jeans, patiently waits as the crew lays down dolly tracks and lights the scene. He rewrote some of it yesterday on his laptop right in the middle of the set.

Asked how he could do this, he replied ruefully, "Do you have kids?" At one point he stopped writing to ask the crew, "Who's a Giants fan? Who's going to be their quarterback next year?"

Zwick was an English major at Harvard. He uses words like "fatuous" and "apercus." But he's not some sort of chilly polymath. His understanding of his generation's aspirations and anxieties led him to create (with partner Marshall Herskovitz) the often infuriatingly accurate TV dramas "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life."

Fortunately, unlike most adults, Zwick continues to develop new interests. "Against All Enemies" in some ways represents his more recent, politically oriented inquiries.

"I had read several books, among which was 'Wedge,' which described the fractious interrelationship between the FBI and the CIA about (double agent) Aldrich Ames," he says. "I knew about that historical antipathy."

Obst was shopping around a script (by Lawrence Wright) that touched on this antipathy, and Zwick (with co-screenwriter Menno Meyjes) jumped on it. The way the piece has evolved, with its moral uncertainties, agency bureaucracies and characters who are peculiarly suited to and shaped by a life of clandestine activity and law enforcement, it now resembles nothing so much as a Le Carre novel.

"If someone said that once they saw the movie, I would not be displeased," says Zwick, a big fan of Le Carre's character studies cloaked in espionage. "I can never say it myself because it would be self-serving and too much to wish for."

The cast for this "thinking man's thriller," as Obst puts it, has to be comfortable dealing with both flying bus debris and such lines as "The Army is a broadsword, not a scalpel." To Zwick, Washington seemed a natural to play the moral center of the film, and he has the added advantage of being black: "It's interesting when you're doing a story about repression to have a black man as a symbol of authority."

They had actually been working on another project together when this one came along. Bening was one of only two women Zwick even considered for the role of the CIA agent (he won't say who the other one was). Shaloub was cast not because he's part Lebanese but because he's a good actor whose time has come. And Zwick chose Willis, whom he knows from having directed his wife, Demi Moore, in a movie called "About Last Night . . . ," because he needed an actor with A-list power willing to go up against Washington in what is not an A-list role.

Having settled these issues, Zwick and company now have one more major hurdle: After nine weeks of shooting, they still haven't arrived at a title for the movie. It was first "Martial Law," but that, Obst said, was deemed too confusing--audiences might misread it as "Marital Law." "Blowback" is an appropriate and popular choice, but that's been taken. So too has Zwick's personal favorite, "Patriots," which works for him both literally and ironically. They finally pick "Against All Enemies," after the oath taken by all law enforcement agents ("I swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic"). Yet another Zwick literary reference.

Meanwhile, there's a movie to finish for a possible late-fall release. After a take in which Shaloub glares at Bening and tells Washington, "I trust her as far as I could throw her," Zwick comes up to him and discusses a different line reading. They shoot it again.

"I trust her--as far as I could throw her," Shaloub says.

It's a subtle distinction--one that, like a lot of others he's made amid the bombings and other big set pieces, Zwick hopes audiences will notice and appreciate.

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