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Serious About Syriana

November 2, 2006

If somebody tells you they understood Syriana after one viewing, they’re either a liar or a genius.

This is a complicated, convoluted, sophisticated, occasionally incomprehensible movie that wears its inaccessibility as a badge of honor. That doesn’t make it bad, but that doesn’t necessarily make it great either; and a movie this politically charged needs to be great just to be relevant.

As best as I can tell, Syriana is the story of a disputed oil field in an unnamed Persian Gulf kingdom and the various forces that covet it. The list of suitors is impressive. There are corporate law firms, Texan-dominated oil companies, Chinese corporations, multinational energy consultants, Arabian emirs and of course, the CIA. That’s not even mentioning the players who don’t have an immediate interest in the oil field, who include Iranian criminals, Islamic terrorists, Hezbollah and the American-based Committee to Liberate Iran.

The plot is two parts The Economist, one part King Lear: the aging emir of the kingdom is waffling over which son should succeed him, the Oxford-educated Nasir (Alexander Siddig) or the lightweight Meshal (Akbar Kurtha). Nasir wants to sell drilling rights to a Chinese firm and use the profits to liberalize and secularize his country. Meshal is under the sway of the American petro conglomerate Connex and likes to talk about his yacht.

But before Connex can make any deals with Meshal, it needs to get the Justice Department to approve its merger with Killen, a smaller oil company that owns prized oil rights in Kazakhstan. And the Justice Department won’t let the acquisition go through without a conviction or two. But ultimately, everyone thinks that the highest of higher-ups want the Connex-Killen merger to happen for the sake of American energy security. As Bennett Holiday (a wonderfully serpentine Jeffrey Wright), a lawyer for Connex, says, “What the government wants is the appearance of due diligence.”

Syriana uses its two biggest stars, George Clooney and Matt Damon, in an unconventionally conventional way. Clooney plays Bob Barnes, a longtime CIA operative, and Damon plays Bryan Woodman, a high-profile energy advisor for a Zurich-based consulting firm. We trust them because they’re stars and they’re playing savvy, bold men who are by no means innocent. But we come to identify with them because they are so much like us: only gradually do either they or the audience learn what’s “really” going on. They are our touchstones in the movie’s morass of conspiracies and betrayals.

In Syriana, corruption is presented as nothing less than a necessary survival skill: employees rat out bosses, friends sacrifice friends, fathers betray children, brothers turn on brothers. Not even Barnes or Woodman escape from the endemic corruption: Barnes is a trained killer while Woodman is willing to trade on a family tragedy to get a contract with Prince Nashir. In Syriana, “good” and “bad” are relative terms. What separates the heroes from the villains is not whether they’ve sinned, but whether they’re honest about their own corruption.

The two significant exceptions to Syriana’s world of corruption are Prince Nashir and Mazhar Munir (Wasim Ahmed Khan), a Pakistani youth laid off by Connex who comes under the sway of an Islamic fundamentalist school. Nashir represents everything the West dreams a Middle Eastern leader should be: he’s refined and well-educated and wants to raise the status of women and bring representative democracy to the Gulf. He’s only working with the Chinese because they were the highest bidder. Mazhar represents everything the West fears: he’s disaffected, directionless, poor and easily persuaded to blow himself up in the name of jihad. The terrible irony in Syriana is that the U.S. villifies the liberalizer while ignoring the terrorist.

Politically, Syriana’s portrait of the Middle East and the forces that affect it mostly ring true. Mazhar’s transformation from oil worker to terrorist seems plausible; the U.S. government’s desire to secure oil interests is unquestionable; and the U.S.’s backing of shady regimes in the name of stability and friendliness to American oil companies is well-documented. But the key to Syriana’s message of non-involvement in Middle Eastern political affairs is Prince Nashir.

He is intended as proof to the thesis that if only the U.S. got out of the Middle East, homegrown leaders would take care of their problems. I’m not so sure. There hasn’t been a genuinely liberalizing, non-expansionist, non-authoritarian leader–or at least one with any staying power–in or around the Middle East since Ataturk’s ascendance to power in Turkey in the 1920s. That’s nearly a century of disinterested kings, small-minded warlords and cruel dictators. Unless you’re willing to make the dubious claim that the West has systematically squashed reform-minded leaders for 50 years, the existence of a prince like Nashir is pure fantasy. And if someone like Nashir doesn’t exist, then one of the central pillars of Syriana’s argument falls apart: that Middle Eastern countries would reform their backward economies and destructive tendencies if left to their own devices. What Syriana is unwilling to recognize is that non-interventionism may carry as much risk as interventionism.

But whatever your political take on Syriana–and you are sure to have one–you have to give credit to Steven Gaghan, the screenwriter and director, for crafting such well-defined throughlines for the forces at play. While it may be occasionally impossible to figure out who works for who, I think the motivations of the major forces–the American government, the petro-bosses, the emirs, the CIA and the terrorists–are pretty clear.

But much like in Gaghan’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Traffic, sometimes individual character motivation is sacrificed for the sake of making a larger political point. It certainly makes things interesting when Nashir hires Woodman to be his economic advisor, but it’s never established how Woodman transforms from a timid company man to someone ballsy enough to insult a prince’s country to his face. And while Bob Barnes’ story is tragic and powerful to watch, his decision to freelance at the end of the movie makes no sense. When he makes his way to a caravan in an Arabian desert to tell a marked man that the U.S. government is after him, what does he expect to do? Shoo away the laser-guided missile? Throw himself in the line of an assassin’s bullet?

Ultimately, I suspect most people’s opinions of Syriana will hinge on whether they see the plot’s density as a virtue or a vice. If you judge Syriana by the standards of a typical political thriller, it fails. Too much information is imparted through newscasts and too many scenes end without resolution. The labyrinthine nature of the narrative invites multiple viewings, but I doubt many people will be eager to sit through Syriana more than once. Unlike similarly complex stories like Memento or The Godfather II, there aren’t enough scenes of true visceral power–maybe three or four at most–to keep you coming back.

But Gaghan and Clooney, who produced the movie, would probably say that’s the point: the Middle East is too complex to be boiled down into an accessible narrative, and too serious a matter to be dressed up with car chases and extraneous explosions. Syriana’s purpose, they might argue, is to shatter Americans’ illusions that the Middle East can be understood in simple terms of good and evil. So which is it: failed thriller, or complex and challenging political statement? I’ll be honest. I’m not sure.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Juan permalink
    November 4, 2006 6:04 pm

    I’m sure: failed thriller. No matter how complex the story, you can make it understandable if you try. Or want to.

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