Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Syriana is, to my mind, an elaborated, over-long doppelgänger of Crash; except this time set in the Middle East and dealing with another nettlesome issue -- Oil. Like Paul Haggis’s Crash, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is interested in argument over story or narrative. Notwithstanding his function as a screenwriter, Gaghan appears to have used the film as a vehicle to dramatize a number of debates that have been circulating throughout our post-9\11 environment.

First, American dependency on foreign oil has long been the hobbyhorse of well-meaning liberals, and since Syriana was executive produced by EBay founder Jeff Skoll, Hollywood Auteur Steven Soderbergh and his collaborator qua renaissance man George Clooney, the argument is one that has great purchase in the film. The second, more general argument deals with means, or more to the point, the lengths to which American dependency on foreign oil is sustained. These issues and the arguments that surround them can range from the remarkable, to the compelling, to the exhaustingly tedious, to the downright delusive. So where does Gaghan’s offering register on the gamut?

To be fair, the answer would be as long and as convoluted as Syriana, so it would be simpler to describe the mise en scène first. Set in the breath-taking environs of Beirut, George Clooney portrays Bob Barnes, a grizzled CIA case officer who is not unlike Robert Baer, the grizzled CIA case officer and author of See No evil, a book which Syriana, evidently, borrows from. Clooney’s character engages in stealth deals whose transactions involve the sale of United States weaponry to Middle Eastern intermediaries. All of this, unsurprisingly, is entirely under the auspices of the United States government. That is one thread.

Interspersed with this are disparate threads that eventually, hopefully, form some type of semblance. Chris Cooper is the churlish Texan Oil executive, replete with all those impolite southern bon mots. As the Managing Partner of an ethically disinterested law firm, Christopher Plummer renders the single-minded and boundless venality of his ilk brilliantly. Matt Damon the actor plays Matt Damon as an energy trader.

There is an emir, maybe in Beirut, not likely in Tehran -- who knows? -- on the precipice of deciding which one of his sons will become the next emir. One son is a reformer buoyed by a strong sense of obligation and commitment to his country; he hopes to reinvest the country's oil wealth back into the countries pitiable infrastructure. The other son wants to sell his country's oil to the Americans at below market-value; he also isn’t troubled with the idea of American military bases on his soil. Guess who the American favor? Guess who’s going to be the next emir? And still there are other threads, one turning out to be periphery, the other even still more periphery. So much for the narrative. But wither Gaghan’s arguments?

To recapitulate a point, Crash and Syriana are the same movie. Both grab at contrived almost opportunistic scenarios to manipulate, as A.O Scott of the Times says of Crash, dialogue and mood. When Matt Damon trails off into one of those prolix geopolitical diatribes reminiscent of Good Will Hunting, his studied earnestness betrays a false intention. The dialogue feels too much like arguments Gaghan may have had with close friends. Standing in the picturesque deserts of Lebanon turns out to be just an excuse to have these arguments.

On another occasion we look in on a Madrassa, the imam is lecturing to the students about the failure of liberal states, noting that “deregulation”, “privatization”, or “lower taxes” are not cures to the ailments of modernity, saying quiet ominously that Christian theology has utter failed. Do imams really talk like this? To me, this sounds like Gaghan as an imam pontificating to a western audience. But who knows?

We must keep in mind that Gaghan penned Traffic, a better film than Syriana, which also involved intersecting and convoluted narrative threads, except that time dealing with the drug trade. And if oil is the drug which Americans are dependent on, then, like Traffic, Syriana talks of systems beyond the comprehension and control of individual agents. What Syriana does best, then, is to explicate the essences of systems. That the only inertia is self-interest, that the system will always remain static, and that beneath and above the myriad layers of obfuscation there is no logic, only self-interest replacing self-interest.

The crux of Gaghan's argument is that Big Oil and American national interests are synonymous, and that in the pursuit of these interests Middle Eastern governments, perforce, must necessarily reflect United States dicta. The deck is always stacked against contrary outcomes. It's an argument that is difficult to disagree with. All of this begins to sound very glib.


The aesthetic of Syriana is very much like that of Traffic’s. The pacing is languorous, the shots, many on hand-held cameras, capture stunting landscapes and lush vistas, yet the cinematography in general chooses an austere sensibility. For a film of this genre it feels too antiseptic, too insular, too prosaic, and too indistinguishable from Traffic at points. Syriana isn’t a bad film, for the conclusions it attempts to reach are novel, but it’s not necessarily a good one either, since the arguments it disguises as drama are about as credible as they were in Crash.

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