Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Bonus Movie Review
The only other movie it reminded me of was Traffic and that was a fortuitous choice because the writer/director of Syriana, Stephen Gaghan, was the writer of Traffic. Go figure. Those two movies are similar in the myriad of actually unconnected stories they tell. Traffic was, however, an excellent movie. This one just doesn't have the goods.
Not to say that the performances are not uniformly excellent, including, prominently, George Clooney and Matt Damon. It's not the actors' fault. It is also quite beautifully shot--beautiful scenes of nihilistic crap. Here's the short version of this review: Oil people are getting nefarious things done; Pakistani workers are mistreated; the CIA eats its own: everyone is damaged or corrupt; the Americans do something bad for very little reason; you don't care about anyone in the film; terrorism; but, life goes on. And two hours six minutes are gone forever.
Here's a technical flaw which I find telling. Clooney, the old hand CIA operative, sells two Stinger shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles and then doublecrosses the buyers. One of the missiles ends up with the mistreated Pakistani oil laborers in some unidentified country on the Persian Gulf (I guess all those countries are fungible). I thought clearly it was Saudi Arabia. The terrorist recruiter/trainer in the film makes a big deal about the shaped charge warhead of the Stinger (a big olive drab thing big as a 2 and 1/2 half pound coffee can). The terrorist says the shaped charge will send a jet of molten copper through 30 inches of steel. Now this is true of the shaped charge warhead (maybe just 20 inches of steel) on a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) which is an anti-tank weapon, but the Stinger's warhead blows coiled steel wire (like a slinky) in a pretty big radius in the hope the hurling bits of wire will cut though something important in a jet engine and bring the aircraft relying on that engine down (or slice up the pilot for the same effect). There are very few steel armored airplanes other than the A-10, and no need for a shaped charge warhead; in fact, a shaped charge warhead is exactly the wrong thing to have on a Stinger, because it would mean that the warhead would have actually to touch the aircraft before it exploded, which is tough to do. Now, if the director/writer got that little detail that wrong, why should I believe him about anything else he has in the film? And the short answer is that I didn't.
The CIA is just lousy. They don't protect their operatives; they lie about Saudi prince's terrorist ties; they murder foreigners; and, turn on their own (for no discernible reason) and hang Clooney out to dry for doing just what they told him to do (actually this might be the most accurate part of the film--I'm kinda down on the CIA lately). And they take out Saudi princes with remote controlled Hellfire missiles for reasons that have nothing to do with national security. They blow up the innocent prince and his wife and kids because of the prince's position regarding an oil deal. What? Every American in the film (with the possible exception of Matt Damon) is corrupt and/or extremely vindictive, or is damaged goods. Many of the foreigners have a lot of dignity and integrity.
But I'm not faulting the underlying anti-Americanism of the movie. The flaw is that by having so many negative characters, the viewer turns off a switch in his or her heart and feels nothing for anyone, even the good guys. Not just because of unlikeable characters, but also the cold souless business of the plot acts like some sort of sympathy lock out. In a way it is a remarkable achievement--we don't care what happens to anyone. I can't recall a movie where I was such an emotionally isolated spectator. It may be remarkable, but it is a hollow achievement and one which at the core ruins the film. And there is little redemption (maybe the corrupted lawyer and his alky father). Clooney's try for redemption just fixes the wrongful target in place. Mat Damon returns to his family bleeding from the ears but has an 80% chance of a subsequent breakup from Amanda Peet. Nor is there any justice in the movie. The Pakistani workers are beaten for no reason. The guys going down for malum prohibitum type crimes seem largely picked at random (and the justice guy, David Clennon, wants two scapegoats, but we never know why) . The true lawbreakers are not punished; one of them wins oilman of the year. The World in Syriana seems a lot like the Protestant version of Hell, without the brimstone. It's not a World I recognize or accept.
Ian Anderson once sang "I may make you feel, but I can't make you think." This movie has the opposite effect, so that even after horrible things happen, you shrug your shoulders and think "Well, life goes on," which I think is a Beatles line.
Oil. The word recurred constantly in stories about the Middle East when the Iraq war began. Twice I saw television hosts impatiently brush away the subject of oil when guest experts mentioned it, as if it were too banal a topic, too frequently used to explain military and political moves in the region. Lately, however, oil seems to have receded in Middle East reportage and discussion. Now here is Syriana, which takes place in several Arab countries (along with other places) and has a thick plot whose text and subtext are oil. Iraq is never mentioned, but it is there. Apparently the film leaves it to the viewer's assumption that any story about oil in this region must implicate Iraq.
Syriana was written--and directed--by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the very substantial Traffic five years ago. (Syriana, we've been told, is a term that was coined to tag the Middle East countries as a group.) The film is based on the memoirs of Robert Baer, a former CIA agent. George Clooney plays such an agent, and the tenor of his experience is established very early. The first sequence is in Tehran where, after conferring with several local men, Clooney walks down the street toward us. About twenty yards behind him a car blows up. Clooney doesn't even turn around; he just keeps on walking calmly.
The story quickly--well, not very quickly--quadruples. Besides the Clooney character, who is a bit worn by grim experience, the film has three other leading persons. Jeffrey Wright plays a Washington lawyer whose firm assigns him to deal with an important merger between two American oil companies. Matt Damon is a financial analyst who lives in Geneva with his family. Through a strange series of events he becomes adviser to an Arab prince eager to succeed his father as emir of an unnamed oil-soaked country. Mazhar Munir plays a Pakistani laborer in an Iranian oil field, living in the warren of a laborers' compound, who in frustration about the way his employers treat him and others turns to radical Islam. One novelty in the screenplay is that these four stories are not eventually connected, as we might expect. What explains their coursing in parallel lines is that, in four different ways, they are all connected with oil.
So there are four principal lines of action. Clooney is given a fresh mission in the Middle East, where he is kidnapped and tortured for information. (An unsparing scene.) He manages to get back to Washington and has reason to confront a hugely powerful figure (Christopher Plummer) whose fingers are in the petroleum pie. Damon finds himself exhorting and scolding his Arab employers for their medieval ways and at the end is accidentally--and unknowingly--involved in an action against Clooney. Wright goes to Texas to deal with a convocation of industry biggies. There and elsewhere--several elsewheres--he carries confidence like a banner. Munir's proletarian is fired by radical Islam in a spiritualized yet more violent version of the way that proletarians of the 1930s were fired by communism.
Numerous other actors provide vivid sketches of Arab and American figures encountered along the route. This multiplicity--of people, stories, settings--is both the weakness and strength of the film. It is not easy to follow all the various threads, to get the pith of every scene. Still, this very abundance gives the whole picture a sense of authority. It pours and pours so much in front of us that we feel the makers of the picture must know what they are talking about.
Part of our receptivity to this picture comes from our hunger for insight about the current war. To repeat: Iraq is never mentioned, but the atmosphere of the picture, its hugger-mugger about oil, seems related in tenor to the current official camouflage about Iraq. Another part of our receptivity comes from the recent rash of dirty dealings at high levels--Enron, etc. No sentient person could ever have imagined that huge corporations were run by saints, but what has happened in the last few years helps us to believe the mutterings and taciturn exchanges among tycoons in this film. None of the doings by American oil men is overtly illegal, but all of them seem sly.
Clooney, bearded and heavy, creates his underwritten role himself with his authenticating presence. Damon continues to rise out of his pleasant American-boy persona into authority. Wright is so forcefully assured as the lawyer that he needs to spend no time in contriving that assurance. Munir is frightening. Plummer is, as always, magnificent.
Alexandre Desplat's score is so effective that, at times, if we wonder why a scene is holding us, we recognize that the music is helping. The general level of cinematography these days has risen so high that it is possible to take Robert Elswit's fine work for granted. Tim Squyres, the editor, must have been one of the busiest people on the planet while he was editing Syriana: he had to keep the complex film speedy without being curt. In general he succeeds. Gaghan, we're told, spent much time in the Arab world while he was writing this picture, and his directing bespeaks familiarity.
At the finish Syriana impresses, not because it is very moving, which it isn't, or because it is crystal clear, which it also isn't, but because it is so large, so encompassing, so seemingly privy to inside stuff--about the way the Middle East is being manipulated behind our backs and over our heads. At the end we feel that we didn't know we wanted this film and are glad that our unconscious wish was granted.