Sunday, November 30, 2008

Syriana (Warner Bros., 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I had enough time together to run a movie of substantial length, and I picked the 2005 sort-of epic Syriana. Riffing off Pauline Kael’s description of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter as “a small-minded film with greatness in it,” I’ve often described one movie or another as a bad film with a good film in it struggling to get out. The problem with Syriana is it’s a bad film with about four or five good films in it struggling to get out. It was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the screenwriter for the almost-as-messy Traffic, and was ballyhooed on its initial release as doing for oil what Traffic did for drugs.

It’s a multiple plot-line film “suggested” by Robert Baer’s nonfiction book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism (which would probably make interesting reading: See No Evil was also the working title of the film) in which the central characters are rogue CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney, almost unrecognizable in a full beard and I suspect wearing body padding to make himself considerably more heavy-set than the rather rangy guy we’re used to seeing in his other films), who once infiltrated Hezbollah in Lebanon; Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), some sort of diplomat or international fixer whose exact role is something of a mystery but who gets to hang out with the Emir of a carefully unnamed Arab state that is probably supposed to be Kuwait; Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), an Obama-colored African-American attorney for a law firm headed by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) whose job it is to see if the Killen (pronounced “Killeen”) oil company broke any U.S. anti-corruption laws in securing an oil contract for Kazakhstan — the firm is working for the much larger Connex company, which has arranged a merger with Killen in order to acquire the Kazakhstan contract after the Emir has cancelled their natural-gas concession in his country and given it to a Chinese firm instead; the Emir himself (Nadim Sawalha) and his two sons, Prince Nazir (Alexander Siddig) — who wants his country to sell its energy resources to the highest bidder and use the proceeds to develop an economy that can sustain his people when the oil runs out and allow him to institute democracy, secularism and women’s equality; and his younger brother Meshal (Akbar Kurtha), who just wants power for the sake of power and is willing to suck up to the Americans to get it.

Various things happen in this movie, including the electrocution of Woodman’s six-year-old child in a swimming pool at the Emir’s mansion in France (it’s not clear who wired the pool to electrocute the next person who swam in it, who the intended target was or the motive behind the operation);the kidnapping of Barnes in Lebanon and his torture at the hands of Mussawi (Mark Strong), who is trying to get him to give up a list of names, though who these people are and why their identities are so important is just one of the many things Gaghan’s maddeningly obscure script never bothers to explain; and a final climax in which the Emir abdicates and retires to the soft life in Europe (he’s in poor health and in his last scenes he’s in a wheelchair), names his younger son as his heir, and a missile is fired at a convoy of SUV’s (ostensibly by Muslim terrorists but actually, it’s clearly implied, as part of a plot initiated by the CIA) carrying the elder brother Nazir, killing both him and Barnes and wounding Woodman, just as Nazir and several generals in the mystery country’s army were planning a palace coup to install him on the throne.

The political point of the ending couldn’t be clearer — the U.S. doesn’t want democracy in the Arab world because a democratic government would be bound to follow the will of its people and wouldn’t make the kinds of sweetheart deals with the U.S. government and American oil companies the real Arab Gulf states have consistently done — but it’s been a long, confusing journey to that one point of clarity and it’s such a deeply depressing, pessimistic plot resolution it’s surprising that George Clooney put one of his “Movies Can Inspire — Now It’s Up to You to Act” leaflets inside the DVD cover. When he did that with Good Night and Good Luck it made sense — it was basically a message to Americans to protect their access to investigative journalism and fight the corporatization of the media and the cutbacks in editorial positions to feed the bottom line — but it’s hard to imagine Syriana inspiring anybody to anything but hopelessness: the film’s ending says, “The world is a bad place, and we do bad things in it, and if you want to keep gas prices down so you can continue to drive everywhere, this is the way it has to be.”