Syriana

I’m still sorting through my response to Syriana (IMDB), so this review may seem a little scattered and unfocused. Perhaps instead of viewing this entry as anything remotely resembling a final take on the film, this entry will serve as a starting point towards something else (further discussion? an article?). Syriana, written and directed by Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, presents a multi-threaded narrative focusing on several different individuals and organizations who are involved in protecting U.S. oil interests, including oil executives, Gulf emirs, CIA agents, and corporate lawyers, as well as the displaced workers employed at the refineries. The film cuts between the power centers of Washington, Geneva, Tehran, and other unnamed locations in the Persian Gulf. While many critics have suggested that the multiple threads confounding, I think Digby’s right to suggest that these plotlines can lead to what he calls a “bracing clarity:” it’s about oil. More specifically, it’s about the increasing scarcity of that “natural” resource. The film is also, as David Lowery notes, a “contagiously angry” movie in its portrayal of conspiracy, without, at least in my opinion, coming across as overly sanctimonious. But here are a few reasons why I found this film so compelling:

First, Syriana is one of the highest-profile projects by the new indie, Participant Productions (they also produced Murderball, North Country, and Good Night and Good Luck among others). I’ll admit to being intrigued by Participant’s attempts to use entertainment for social change. According to their website, “Participant believes in the power of media to create great social change. Our goal is to deliver compelling entertainment that will inspire audiences to get involved in the issues that affect us all.” It’s clear that many of Participant’s films are intended to increase political awareness. It’s less clear how that will translate into people getting involved, although the website does offer a “take action” resource page (check out the LA Times article on Participant). More on that question in a moment.

Syriana, of course, recalls the 1970s conspiracy movies, such as All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor, that Fredric Jameson analyzed so thoughtfully in The Geopolitical Aesthetic. But, as J. Hoberman points out, in a line worthy of Jameson himself, “Gaghan is less fixated on superstar heroism and more interested in representing a system—if, indeed, that system can be represented.” The “system,” of course, is global capitalism, but what happens with Syriana seems to offer a subtle shift away from the ’70s films that posit the lone indvidual (or indviduals in President’s) to a model in which even the ostensible outsiders are implicated or involved on some level. While George Clooney and Matt Damon, among others, add star power to Syriana, they are far less attached to the model of heroism or idealism that we encounter in the conspiracy films of the Watergate era. Without giving too much away, Clooney’s CIA agent and Damon’s economic advisor are clearly implicated in the loose oil conspiracy that dominates the film. We also see a group of displaced Pakistani teenagers who find themselves suddenly unemployed after one corporate merger and subtly, but surprisingly quickly, tranformed into suicide bombers.

Some spoilers here: The multi-threaded (or hypertext as one critic described it) narrative is elegantly handled (much better than the somewhat manipulative use of multiple film stocks in Soderbergh’s Traffic, and the difficulty of sorting through the relationships is part of the point (the LA Times review is good on this point, as is David Lowery’s, which I cited earlier). What makes the film so troubling is that, as David implies, the film is so critical of the complicity between a Big Oil merger and the CIA that “it makes a triumph out of the terrorist attack.” I’m not quite sure I walked away with that reading, but it’s clear that we are meant to compare the suicide attack on the oil tanker with the cold-blooded assassination of the pro-democratization Prince Nasir by the CIA.

This final sequence actually left me feeling somewhat powerless and resigned (David has a slightly different read), and I think that’s an unintended consequence of the film’s presentation of conspiracy. I need to do some other work this afternoon, but I’m fairly certain that I’ll be returning to Syriana in the near-future. It’s an incredibly rich film that certainly demands that viewers confront this situation, but I’m not sure if the film offers any potential response to the conspiracy.

Update (11:21 PM): I forgot to mention this before, but one of the sensations that stuck with me the most in my experience of Syriana was the film’s overarching masculinity. The only review I’ve seen that explicitly addresses this topic is Cynthia Fuchs’ Pop Matters review. Fuchs notes that “In Syriana, Bob [George Clooney] is only one of several figures — specifically, fathers — trying to keep up.” Father-son relationships consistently inform the film’s dynamics. Bob’s son complains about the inability to live a normal teenage life. Bryan’s (Matt Damon) status as a father is crucial to his character’s opportunism. Prince Nasir’s relationship to his father motivates several major plot points. These father-son relationships may very well comment on issues of generational legacy (Jeffrey Wright’s Bennett Holiday pointedly refuses to drink in one crucial scene, for example), but it also seems significant that this generation gap is strictly paternalistic. Bob’s CIA agent wife goes unseen. The oil executives are resolutely men, Texas Oil Men in the most classic sense. The only female character with any significant screen time is Bryan’s wife (played by Amanda Peet), and she is seen only in the world of family and home, often at the breakfast table. Given all of the recent discussion of Valerie Plame, the absence of any female players in this saga seems rather significant, doesn’t it?

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