Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Film Review: Syriana

[Maybe not a "review" in the traditional sense. I'll briefly address the plot (good luck, Dave) and then make some observations.]

First, the story: Hard to explain. The short version is that it is about the interplay between the oil and gas industry and the political structures and changes in the Middle East, and how the U.S.'s involvement in that process could effect both positive and negative change. However, to sum it up so succinctly (believe me, that really is the short version) loses so much in the translation. It's also about how outside perspectives can be false, and how actions have ripple effects. It's about a lot of things. It has been compared to Traffic, a brilliant film with the same writer (who directs this film). Stylistically, there certainly are similarities, in terms of how the story is presented. All in all, this is a movie that requires you to chew on it for some time afterward. But this extra effort is rewarding.

Now, my thoughts:

[Needless to say, consider the rest of this post to be under MAJOR SPOILER WARNING until the red text at the end.]

--I thought the acting was outstanding across the board. Really great performances, even by the few actors given card-board cut-out characters (poor Tim Blake Nelson). I was convinced that each of these characters (though, admittedly, some more than others) were real people, instead of characterizations. I enjoyed George Clooney's befuddled and increasingly desparate ex-CIA operative, especially when the walls started closing in around him. I loved Matt Damon's heartfelt portrayal of the energy analyst who invests himself in a dream of democracy that's cut short. I liked Jeffrey Wright's lawyer, who always seemed to evade me when I tried to pin down which 'side' he was really on. Good work on all accounts.

--I appreciated how deftly the filmmaker handled Damon's son's death. (I won't be able to remember character names often, so i'll use actors' names when needed. Just so you know.) The turning on of the lights. The shot of the broken bulb and exposed wiring. The kids by the pool, about to jump in. And then the lights flickering elsewhere. Really well-conceived series of shots. I don't know if that little light could create enough of a current through the water to electrocute the boy (at least enough for him to drown). But I bought it completely, as I sat there.

--There were only a few clear "villains" in this movie. TBN's oil tycoon is one. I'd classify the CIA guy who called for the airstrike as another. Maybe a few more of the oil people, but they were played as buffoons, rather than evil and conniving. Sadly, the jihadist suicide bombers were not played as clear villains either, though their "teacher" certainly was menacing to me, in that overly kind, spider-to-the-fly way.

--I'll agree with one reviewer that, in retrospect, I was a little uneasy with how benign the terrorist group Hezbollah was portrayed. As one blogger put it, remember that in terms of terrorist groups, they have killed the second-highest number of American citizens (after Al-Quaida). So for the leader of this group to be the "kindly old man" that Clooney goes to see, it didn't get through during the movie, but it bugged me afterward.

--The nail-pulling scene was just tough to sit through. Poor Bob. Dude turned his back on Bob like a cold-blooded gangsta.

--On a related note, I will say that they showed two different portrayals of "true believers," though the benign jihadists were more sympathetically portrayed than Bob's turncoat contact who announced he was going to "cut his head off." It was like the film couldn't decide if they were "bad" or not.

--There's a political undercurrent in this movie that's hard to pin down. Many conservatives have reacted to it negatively, saying it's anti-business and anti-Administration. I think this is a somewhat glaring overstatement, but I understand where it's coming from. Conservatives have been conditioned over the years (by the words and actions of both sides) to be distrustful of any piece of art that is overtly political, because overwhelmingly, it is anti-conservative.

However, this film goes beyond party lines a little bit, I think. Granted, it is steeped in the mistrust of the CIA that is most often found in the Left. But there's so much more to it than that. Clear and Present Danger had nefarious CIA operatives, but no one would call that a "liberal movie." Syriana has a lot to do with how we look at other governments, and how the choices we (as a foreign power) make can affect these other governments. It asks questions about whether our foreign policy choices are based more on the interest of our economy or democracy in general.

(Side-note: I would like to point out that, in this film, Big Oil was actually "opposed" to a democratic regime, and preferred a monarchy that was well in-pocket. The thing about sovereign democracies is, not only can the people elect whom they will, but they can do business with whom they will. So, if a Western leader wanted to wage a "war for oil" [hypothetically speaking, of course], would he or she want to install a sovereign constitutional democracy or a monarchy ruled by a crony? Hmm. Food for thought, that.)

--As I said, the film doesn't portray the suicide bomber in a negative light. In fact, he is almost a sympathetic character, though this isn't explicitly stated. I disagree with and reject this thought completely. However, his storyline brings up an interesting question. He was working for an oil company when a merger resulted in massive lay-offs, him included. Left with no job and no future, he was suckered into a cloistered cult-like group of jihadists who wore white and spoke of purity and devotion. In this group, he was given a sense of meaning. He was so desparate for honor and purpose that he was willing to do anything, and he did just that. So the question that his story raises is: shouldn't we consider more carefully the repercussions of our actions? The "evil" corporate giants see financial gain in a merger that leaves thousands without work. Some of these find purpose by joining suicide bombers.

I'm not in any way assigning blame, though. Don't get too excited. Each person is responsible for their own actions. The oil company is to blame for the lay-offs. The boy himself is to blame for his terrorist actions. I'm not about to go anywhere near that other line of reasoning. What I'm simply saying is that we should look a little farther down the line from our bottom line to try to see what our choices could mean to people in other countries. There's nothing wrong with a little more consideration. That's not a Liberal value; that's a human value.

--The two brothers in the (Iranian?) royal family. From the outside, the CIA saw an older brother rightfully ascending the throne, and a younger brother attempting a military coup. From the inside, from Damon's character's perspective, we see an older brother willing to pursue the safety of status quo government, versus the younger, well-educated brother wanting to pursue actual democracy, restored infrastructure, and gender equality. Now, in the film, the younger brother is killed by a CIA airstrike, because the CIA is in bed with Big Oil, who wants to do business with the older brother. While this seems a little too pat, it brings up an interesting issue: is it possible that some of our choices about how we address regimes in the Middle East have more to do with maintaining status quo and good business, rather than the best interests of our country and theirs? (Ahem, Saudi Arabia.)

[Second-side note: Which is better for US economically? Spending incredibly large amounts of money overthrowing a despotic regime and replacing it with a democracy that could still turn against us? Or lifting sanctions against a tyrannical ruler so that we can do business with him? Hmm again.]

These and other questions make this film worth viewing. Of course, the fact that I'm raising these questions would make me a "liberal" in my parents' house, but clearly I'm still very "right of center." I refuse to demonize "Big Oil" or the government across-the-board, but I will admit that there are problems, and there are people who refuse to address these problems.

But as I said before, asking questions is not a party-issue. It's a critical-thought and being-well-informed issue. The problem lies when you force the answers to your questions to be filtered through your preconceived notions about what the truth is. When you refuse to admit that the political or media figure you've demonized may not be the boogie-man you've made him or her out to be. Or when you can't admit that the person you've admired turns out to be a bigger turd than you expected. That's where the problems start...and where communication stops. Oh well. I'll get off my soapbox now.

Final Summation: I think this is a thoroughly worthwhile film to see AND DISCUSS. While you may not agree with everything it seems to assert, there are many important questions asked in the story that should be considered. All in all, recommended. Rock on.

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