A world within a world comes crashing down in the opening sequence of The Kingdom, the new film from director (and uncredited actor) Peter Berg. An American compound inside Saudi Arabia, where ballgames and barbecues are the norm and uncovered female faces mock the law that applies outside the gates, is attacked by men with machine guns and bombs. The details are thoroughly convincing in this scene -- as machine gun fire sends the Americans fleeing in a panic, one of the terrorists, wearing the uniform of a Saudi policeman, falsely beckons some of them his way before setting off a vest of explosives. Later that night, after first-responders have quarantined the crime-scene and set up their own camp, a second-wave attack hits, destroying the entire area and creating a media event that has to be dealt with one way or the other by the American political machinery. This is a decent set-up for a movie, and it's as well-executed as you'd want a set-up to be, but it gives birth to an oddly-schizophrenic film.
You could almost call The Kingdom a double-feature, although it seems blithely unaware of its bifurcated status. To explain: the first half of the film -- actually, closer to two-thirds -- is professorial and serious, going so far as to offer the audience a tedious lecture on Saudi Arabia's history and political situation, balancing Western-style realpolitik with the needs of a population that seems to prefer living by religious teachings. As the aftermath of the compound bombing seeps back to Washington, an FBI team led by steely-eyed Jamie Foxx and comprised of Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman, seeks an entry point to the situation; they want to go investigate the bombing, but the State Department prefers to recognize the Saudi government's 'no boots on the ground' mandate, lest they come off as looking like puppets. Much screentime is given over to a scheme by Foxx to blackmail a Saudi diplomat in order to get his team access, and everything up to this point is deliberately structured as a political thriller. That's why the second part of the film is so surprising.