With all the films being made now about the Middle East, this is the one that gets it right. Written with an economy of dialogue by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who knows when to stop talking and start showing; and directed with great visual panache by Peter Berg, who's obviously on the same page as Carnahan, "The Kingdom" is a brilliant example of using images to tell a story.
After an opening credit sequence that recounts for us the history of Saudi Arabia up to the present, we're shown a terrorist attack on an American compound in Riyadh, carefully planned so that the initial blast only brings out everyone to a central space, and then an hour later a second blast kills even more. Because the FBI has permission to investigate the death of Americans overseas, an evidence-retrieval team is allowed to come to Riyadh, though with great misgivings in Washington. They're led by Jamie Foxx as Ronald Fleury, with Chris Cooper and Jennifer Garner on the team. In Riyadh they are given to Col. Faris Al-Ghazi (a brilliant performance by unknown actor Ashraf Barhom, who at first confines the American team to an unused gym but later becomes their best friend).
Little by little the team finds clues to those who masterminded the bombing, with Fleury running interference for them, getting them more authority and the ability to go outside the compound in their search. The relationship between Fleury and Col. Faris Al-Ghazi is a particularly nice touch in the film, as it comes naturally out of their mutual respect for the other's skill and integrity. At one point the Colonel says, "I am 42 years old; I have two daughters and a son. I cannot understand why anyone would want to kill them."
Director Berg never lingers over something; there's always more to see, more bits and pieces to be found and put in place. Even though we know that this particular attack never happened in real life (an earlier one did in fact destroy an American troop compound, but for the film this one attacks an American oil company's civilian compound), the film convinces us that it did indeed happen. The dialogue has the kind of gallows humor that we know from films of this type, but here it's never overused and works well to set the personalities of the team.
Berg uses hand-held cameras and computer-generated effects without leaning too much on them, and gives the film an intimacy and sense of danger that makes us willing to suspend our disbelief; we are with Fleury and his group all the way. And when it's all over, the last two lines of the film are juxtaposed to give one more example that it's not all over. "The Kingdom" is a film that's going to be treated, I think, as just another action-adventure shoot-em-up with a contemporary terrorist hook, but in fact it's substantially more than that and deserves better.