Friday, January 06, 2006

Syriana: Hard Sell (spoilers)

Stephen Gaghan's Syriana reminded me of James Agee -- specifically, his 1943 review of Walt Disney's film Victory Through Air Power:

I only hope Major de Seversky and Walt Disney know what they are talking about, for I suspect an awful lot of people who see Victory Through Air Power are going to think they do. Certainly I am not equipped to argue with them. I have the feeling that I was being sold something under pretty high pressure, which I don't enjoy, and I am staggered by the ease with which such self-confidence, on matters of such importance, can be blared all over a nation, without cross-questioning.

The organizing principle of Syriana is the sales pitch. Every character makes at least one in due course; some, like Tim Blake Nelson's cheerfully venal oil tycoon, make two or three. This leads to a film that is needlessly talky but only occasionally inert. Of course, as David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross proved, a sales pitch differs from mere speechifying. Sales pitches are speech acts; they come with a ready-made dramatic context, and contain myriad opportunities for irony, disjunction and counterpoint.

The difference is that Glengarry concerns people in a recognizably human situation, while Syriana is for the most part too concerned with expounding its particular view of geopolitical concerns to care a tinker's damn about its characters. Early in the film, Gaghan uses the death of a child as a plot device. Perhaps it is his way of explaining that all global capitalism is founded on blood money -- a point Gaghan reiterates often in the course of the film, down to his sledgehammer car-chase climax. But when such a momentous tragedy merits only the briefest of pauses, it's a sign that something in the author's value system is seriously askew.

The film does feature some speech-making, mostly from Alexander Siddig, who plays a royal prince in the unnamed Middle Eastern country where much of the action takes place: Siddig holds forth at length about his vision for the Middle East, in which social and democratic reforms are accompanied by an end to governmental corruption. (Naturally, the Americans in this film don't want any of that, and all but twirl their moustaches as they contemplate how to bring his dreams of liberty crashing to the ground.) Siddig is rapidly becoming an Arab version of Sidney Poitier, and whenever he proclaims his character's beneficent intentions Syriana stops dead in its tracks.

Ultimately, Syriana comes across as a sales pitch, and a remarkably shrill one at that, for the "No Blood For Oil" crowd. (In a web interview with the Washington Post Gaghan describes himself as "a straight up, Kentucky moderate". That may be, but if there's anything "moderate" about this film I can't find it.) The film also touts its own website, cosponsored by the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council (a left-wing alternative-energy group with links to Teresa Heinz Kerry). Although I'd love to discuss the film on a purely aesthetic level, as (Agee again) "a certain kind of moving picture," it's impossible to discuss the film's artistic merits without discussing its politics. One may as well try to discuss a salesman without mentioning what he peddles.

Gentle reader, I didn't buy Gaghan's wares, although quite a few people have -- including a number of prominent and ordinarily sensible film critics. That may explain why Syriana has become a staple on year-end ten-best lists. Perhaps they believe that Gaghan is saying something important about the nature of capitalism, or about the oil industry, or about the horrible waste and corruption inherent in the American lifestyle. Kenneth Turan has called it "fearless," as if the First Amendment had been retroactively repealed; Roger Ebert calls it "apolitical," which is as gob-smackingly inaccurate a statement as one is likely to hear from him. Other critics would hold that if Syriana is such an Important Film -- as it wants you to believe it is -- it must perforce be a good one as well.

Alas, it's a muddle-headed mess. As he did with his screenplay for Traffic, Gaghan divides the narrative into several stories which seldom intersect save at a thematic level. The main characters are a lawyer, a financial analyst, a CIA operative, and a terrorist-in-training, caught in a tangled web of plot which Gaghan's merely competent direction does little to clarify. The film offers a merger between two oil conglomerates, a Chinese oil deal, a Middle Eastern country undergoing a major power shift, and foreign-policy machinations guided by various American plutocrats. Lost in the shuffle is any explanation of the cryptic title: Gaghan has described it as emblematic of any Occidental attempt to remake the Middle East in its own image. Whatever.

More troubling, I fear, is the film's apology for Islamist terrorism. Gaghan wants to show us that these terrorists are essentially decent but discontented, and that economic and political forces beyond their control have pressured them into increasingly violent acts against their oppressors. By the end of the film, the evils of global capitalism seem to have triumphed, with help from American militarism: The evil oil companies have merged, America has asserted its hegemonic dominance, the good have been slaughtered and the plutocrats are rewarded, and all the bad guys celebrate their unholy union atop an oil freighter. Of course, this moment of victory is when Gaghan's terrorists strike, blowing up the ship in a final shot that is meant, I suspect, to remind us of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. And we are also meant to think that this final act constitutes a retribution of sorts, the last gasp of oppressed masses against The System.

Nice thought, but it's pretty obviously wrong. Significant manifestations of the Islamofascist jihad have occurred in or above busy city streets, in Israeli autobuses and European subways, and (less frequently) against American military targets -- but not against the oil industry itself. If terrorism is essentially class warfare, as the denouement of Syriana would have us believe, terrorists should be attacking the economic infrastructure instead of blowing up Jewish children (or trying to). But terrorists are not conducting such actions to any major degree -- in fact, the oil industry seems the only part of the Middle East that they've generally left alone. This, in turn, brings Gaghan's endorsement of the "Jihad vs. McWorld" paradigm into serious dispute. From there Syriana collapses in a tsunami of bullshit.

If Syriana had focused on some human dimension in its narrative, and then had been executed with conspicuous skill, its flawed politics might be to some degree excusable (as is the case with the generally reprehensible Munich). But since Gaghan has made a political tract on celluloid, he can't get around the strict standard of verifiability. Ultimately, as is true for most political art, this film must be judged for what it gets wrong rather than what it gets right. And what it gets wrong, it gets very wrong indeed.

To be fair, Syriana has two very nice scenes. One involves the rescue of George Clooney's character, a CIA operative, from a torture chamber in Beirut. Surprisingly, a local Hezbollah leader saves Clooney's bacon, and his imperious behavior resembles that of a mafia don -- all of which seems true enough to this situation. The best scene, though, concerns a lawyer played by Jeffrey Wright (in the film's best performance) receiving a clandestine note and rushing away from an important mid-day business meeting. We discover, to our surprise, that the note pertains to Wright's alcoholic father, who has been discovered in a drunken stupor and needs to be taken home. This scene has a lovely touch of reluctant tenderness, and is the only moment in Syriana where human emotion trumps geopolitics.

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