(CNN) -- Perhaps it was the daily bombardment of media imagery that deterred filmmakers from confronting the Vietnam War until after U.S. troops were safely home. With Iraq it's different. The steady drip of spin and punditry conceals as much as it reveals, and Hollywood is stepping in to fill the breach.
Jamie Foxx (bottom center) leads a team into Saudi Arabia in "The Kingdom."
Not that "The Kingdom" explicitly references Iraq -- the kingdom in question is Saudi Arabia. But this is unmistakably a post-9/11 scenario; you might say it is the 9/11 scenario, after a studio rewrite or three.
This time the terrorist attack takes place on foreign soil -- if that's an appropriate description for a U.S. military base in Riyadh. Gunmen open fire indiscriminately, killing men, women and children enjoying a softball game. This bloodthirsty atrocity is compounded a few hours later with the detonation of a massive car bomb (the devastating blast, probably based on the Khobar Towers bombing, is surely intended to echo Oklahoma City).
If this were a Clinton-era story, retaliation might have come in the form of a cruise missile. Today we get Jamie Foxx as an FBI investigator -- Agent Fleury -- determined to chase down the guy who killed his best friend, with or without State Department approval. Watch Foxx and Jennifer Garner talk about "The Kingdom" »
In the best neo-con fashion Fleury tramples roughshod over diplomatic niceties, blackmailing a Saudi prince to secure an invitation to the crime scene, then rubbing salt in the wound by including a wisecracking Jew (Jason Bateman) and a female forensics specialist (Jennifer Garner) in his three-person backup team. (The third member, Chris Cooper, signals that Fleury is more mindful of Hollywood audience demographics than Muslim sensibilities.)
When they touch down in Riyadh, the agents are surprised and frustrated to be sidelined by the official and incompetent Saudi investigation. In a masterstroke of displacement, it is the thuggish Saudi officer who prefers torturing innocent suspects to the "CSI" sciences the Americans bring to the table.
"America is not perfect, but we are good at this. Let us help you," Fleury pleads.
Produced by Michael Mann and directed by Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") in the jumpy shutterbug style that Mann perfected in "The Insider," "The Kingdom" staples a "Miami Vice" action dynamic to some conflicted ideas about foreign policy -- and then yanks in both directions at once. It even kicks off with a quick recap on Saudi-American relations over the last century or so, a bullet-pointed primer that recalls President Wilson's admiring remark on "The Birth of a Nation": "History writ with lightning."
Given that the movie is framed in such broad, terse strokes, at least screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan strives to inject a degree of cynicism, and he creates a credible Saudi character in the relatively sympathetic officer assigned to keep the FBI agents out of sight and away from danger, Colonel Al Ghazi. Better yet, he's played by a powerful Arab-Israeli actor, Ashraf Barhom ("Paradise Now"), who single-handedly shifts the movie's axis several degrees to the left in every scene he's in.
Indeed, look closely and you may discern hints that Fleury's rogue action is a colossal blunder that only makes things worse (Carnahan, a graduate in international relations who also wrote Robert Redford's forthcoming Afghanistan movie "Lion for Lambs," is no reactionary).
But it's in the nature of the beast that such subtleties are drowned out in a deafening last reel shoot-'em-up that crosses over into crass exploitation -- and that this is when the movie theater comes alive.
Impressively mounted in Abu Dhabi and Arizona (you won't spot the joins), "The Kingdom" works as an exotic action thriller, but its politics are so choked on checks and balances it cancels itself out.