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March 10, 2006

A dreary film with little to say: Syriana - Stephen Gaghan

Posted by Richard D. North

Directed and Written by Stephen Gaghan
certificate 15, 2005

There are marvellous films with tiresome messages. (Here is a rather interesting checklist by Hollywood's own.) Jarhead fits this case, and you'd perhaps think that Syriana would. But it doesn't. Its messages are incoherent and silly rather than awful, but the overall experience is surprisingly dreary. It ought to be difficult to make George Clooney, Matt Damon and Christopher Plummer boring, but this movie, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, manages it.

George Clooney in particular is receiving praise for playing against type: his CIA agent, Bob Barnes, wears a belly, a beard and a bemused expression. He also seems to sleep-walk through his little bit of history, his very gait a sort of shuffle. But Clooney's brave modesty – as it is supposed to be – doesn't add up to acting.

Syriana fails the one absolute requirement of movie-making: it fails to make us take an interest in anyone in it. And then it fails to grab our attention as its characters surf events: it has precious little dramatic tension.

But maybe it succeeds as a campaign.

Syriana is supposed to be based on the work of the ex-CIA agent, Robert Baer and the first of his two books, See No Evil. George Clooney's film company, Participant Films, is running an online "community" and campaign – – and one of its main messages is that America's addiction to oil – a piece of phrase-making which was made popular not least by Robert Baer - is dangerous for it and the world. This of course may well be true. In the broadest terms, Syriana may make many young people see the merit of weaning themselves off gas-guzzling, the better to free the US of involvement in the bad old world. Did it also help induce George Bush to declare in his 2006 State of the Union speech that he, too, was keen for the US to get free of its dependency? Maybe, surely.

And yet, importantly, in view of the beliefs of its promoters, it is difficult to see that Syriana hits any of its supposed targets. It doesn't even make clear what they are, or rather, it won't prioritise from amongst them. You might think this odd for a movie whose makers tout it as dissident, purposeful and serious. Watching Gorgeous George (Clooney, not Galloway) on the chat and arts circuits, one got the impression that he dislikes the way his country is going. He would prefer, for sure, that it was run by Democrats. It is not clear whether he dislikes corporations. But it is radically unclear what sort of foreign policy the Clooniacs would like.

The movie's plot is all but impossible to track (not always a failing in better flicks than this), and it is only thanks to Wikipedia that I spotted that the story's oil major does actually get to influence the CIA as the latter sets about scuppering the reform movement in an oil-producing Middle East country. In other words, so far as I can see, the "Exxon" or the "Conoco" of the piece ("Connex", it's called) is only fleetingly linked to the movie's main villains.

True, the oil major is anxious to convince the Justice Department that it is not unduly corrupt, and resorts to minor skull-duggery to achieve this effect. Perhaps we are supposed to believe that oil companies ought to want to operate without pushing the rules on corruption to the limit, a thing I doubt they can or even ought to do. But anyway the film does a lot of heavy-breathing on this theme, without really persuading us that it all matters much, even to the film-makers.

The greater oddity is that it is presumed that the present White House, the Bush administration, would order or allow the CIA to assassinate a minor but reformist Arab princeling. The CIA and its masters are villainised on the basis that they operate in the Middle East in the sort of way they are widely supposed to have operated in Latin America thirty years ago. This bit of plotting is presumably premised on Baer's arguments. But Baer is surely the man who says that his experience of the CIA was that, in his day, Presidents such as Bill Clinton crippled the CIA by making it politically correct. In short, it had too few people on the ground, and did too little of the interfering which Syriana excoriates.

Sure, Baer says we toady to the Saudis too much, and many of us fancy that may well be true. But oddly, the difference the reviled George W. Bush has made is mostly that his unseating of Saddam Hussein was about the only tenable option available to someone who wanted seriously to shake up the status quo in the Middle East in favour of democracy, and damn the commercial consequences. His is not either the weary realism of realpolitik Kissingerism or the gung-ho manipulativeness of the Reagan years and earlier. And suppose oil had been at the heart of things: would the Clooniacs prefer to buy oil from a blood-stained dictator or the Iraqi people?

And even here we are confused, or George and his crew are. Syriana is satirical on the "right-wing" belief that Iran is one push and a shove away from being democratic and agreeable, and Bob is characterised as being the case-hardened realist who can put the Neo-Cons' hat on straight for them, if only he were listened-to. But the Neo-Con romance can only really be scorned on the premise that naοve dreaminess only works when it's leftist.

Syriana's geo-politics strike one as not merely not a picture of what’s happening out there, but a curious inversion of the reality of what Bush has sought to achieve. In short, this is too poor a portrait of the Bush years for it to be a useful attack on them.

There is a sub-plot of some interest. It concerns the radicalisation of a young Pakistani working in the Middle East oilfields. He is first laid-off and then beaten up by his callous employers. He drifts into a well-funded camp or school where he is plumped-up and radicalised. Whether this is anything like a well-travelled highway to radical Islam, it looks a plausible one.

Rather as in the parallel case of The Constant Gardener and Big Pharma, there seem to be few people who know anything about the oil industry and its politics who take this effort seriously. Will it do harm? I am a little inclined to doubt it. Syriana is full of ire, and may inspire some: but since it lays out no real targets, it seems less than likely to make radicals out of its audience, or make them very effective. As in the case of The Day After Tomorrow, it's likely that this won't much stir the committed, and be seen as entertainment – or not – by most others.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world. He is also the editor of

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"..suppose oil had been at the heart of things (the invasion of Iraq): would the Clooniacs prefer to buy oil from a blood-stained dictator or the Iraqi people?"

Mr North may be the last person alive to be so optimistic on the outcome of the Iraqi debacle: more so than either Mr Rumsfeld or Ambassador Khalilzad, whom you might think had access to the best information available. At the moment, it looks a lot like the choice was ultimately between a bloodthirsty dictator happy to sell oil at the market price (Saddam) or a ruptured and internally violent para-state nominally run by Shi'ites in thrall to Iran's Mr Amadinejad, not quite a moderate he. Is Mr North the most brilliant seer of our age? Or is he Pollyanna in a suit? Or are his politics driven simply by contrarianism, as happens to so many others nowadays?

Posted by: s masty at March 11, 2006 05:07 AM

Hey Random Rude-Adjective Hurler. -- You and others like you think that your massive thesaurus of negativity somehow makes you sound impressive. What you are is in denial. You vaunt your greedy bastard ways outwardly, but inwardly you must cower, knowing of the great divide in the party that supports your bastard ways. I'm not saying Syriana was spot-on, as far as communicating its message. It's telling a complicated story of a complicated time, where people are blinded by their own motives. What blinds you is the belief that you're somehow a good writer because you can say 10,000 nasty things. 10,000 nasties still just equal "nasty" -- if you like bile for breakfast, I'm sure you can create plenty for yourself. There are those of us in the world who don't just thrive on their own selfish interests, but have a desire to find the truth and lay it bare. You should try it some time for real, instead of all the puffery.

also -- "would the Clooniacs prefer to buy oil from a blood-stained dictator or the Iraqi people?" -- what kind of idiot dichotomy is that? DUH, Mr. Heavy Thinker -- there are OTHER CHOICES FOR THINKING PEOPLE. Most of us who care about others besides ourselves want to think of constructive solutions for everyone on our planet, not just our family and the people who could vote for us. Besides, I don't see the Syriana movie as propaganda -- I see it as trying to objectively present the moral dilemma we are in currently. Dispute Peak Oil with any degree of eloquency (backed up by fact), and then maybe someone should listen to you.

Posted by: Blossom at March 27, 2006 01:42 AM
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