Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Syrania: Grandiose, Insidious and I Want More Films Like It

I saw Syriana on Friday night. I've been trying to figure out exactly how to convey my thoughts on the film. Let me start here. I am shocked that this movie got made. I mean that as a completely value-neutral expression of surprise.

There has been a fair bit of build-up, through rumor and innuendo (not to mention advance press). I was half expecting a polemic - a cross between Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Constant Gardener. I mean, it's a movie about oil and big business, produced by the Clooney/Soderberg Section 8 axis, so it must be a huge anti-Bush parable right? Well, not so fast. (It should be noted that my expectations were not high as the film started. On the way in I was acousted by a gaggle of 23ish patrons who told me something along the lines of 'save myself and two hours'. Not a ringing endorsement.)

If anything, the movie is anti-Liberal. Not 'Conservative,' but Realist in the Samuel Huntington-Clash of Civilizations sense: 'This is the way the world works', it seems to say. The big oil companies are neither good nor evil, they just are. And they have interests, and by virtue of their size, these interests move mountains. About 30 minutes in, this amorality smacked me in the face. Once again, not in a bad way, just surprising considering this was supposed to be a 'lefty-movie'.

Yet, on another level, the movie completely worked as entertainment. The first bit seemed a bit muddled, as there are 4 or 5 distinct storylines. I immediately thought of Traffic, which is no surprise considering that the director and screenwriter was the screenwriter for Traffic. (Soderberg, who directed Traffic is an executive producer here as well.) But as at becomes clearer how the stories intersect (or don't) the film gathers steam.

I don't want to give away plot points, because the movie does play a bit like a mystery, but there were several things of note. Alexander Siddiq is terrific as a "progressive" son of an oil-state Emir. (You may remember him as Saladin's lieutenant in Kingdom of Heaven). His character decides that aligning with America might not be in his nation's best interests, yet he is no Islamist radical. He delivers a telling line: "A nation that has 5% of the World's population yet consumes 50% of its military spending has lost its persuasive power." I'm not sure I agree or disagree, but definitely food for thought. At the same time, there is Chris Cooper's oil baron who declares "China's economy isn't growing as fast as it should because it can't get enough oil. And I'm damn proud of that fact." A not-so-subtle reminder that "Strategic oil reserves" aren't just about profits, but about geopolitical power. (A point very often lost on Liberal interventionists.) My one quiblle is that Clooney's character veers dangerously close to uber-competent, like Arnie in True Lies, if that makes sense.

Undoubtedly, the biggest reason the movie affected me was a single scene where the transferrence Hitchcock invented in Psycho (where we, the audience, begin to subtly root for Norman Bates) is taken to its logical conclusion. It worked on me. And that makes me very uncomfortable. I'm interested to hear from other people who have seen the movie to see if I'm the only one. (And not, it's not the torture scene. Which is graphic, but not overly so.)

All in all, a reminder that things are almost always more complex than we imagine them.

Oh yeah. I don't think Iraq is mentioned once.

Note:According to the author, this is what Syriana means:

It's a fictional place, a term used inside the Beltway, to describe redrawing the borders in the Middle East to suit our interests. It's a made-up name. For example, Iraq is very much an artificial country and that is one reason we're having so many problems there because the Iraqis are not a people with a common identity.

Iraq was made up by the British from three Ottoman provinces after WWI but history tells us the British were unable to unify the Iraqis.

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