Monday, May 29, 2006

Syriana - A Review of the Reviews

Syriana, the George Clooney movie, was off my radar until yesterday, and although on the back of my mind, I gave priority to Brokeback Mountain, Crash, and a whole host of other films. If it hadn’t been playing in a local theater long after fading elsewhere, I might not have seen it yet.

It’s based on the memoir by ex-CIA operative Robert Baer, See No Evil, and the central character is allegedly Baer himself, played by Clooney. An old time operative in a new, colder, meaner and more bureaucratic CIA, he is hung out to dry. Clearly Baer wrote the movie to get even.

But more than the CIA, it’s the oil industry titans and their lawyers who are the bad guys here, and still other baddies, Gulf State emirs, Pakistani terrorists, and corrupt U.S. congressmen are mere also-rans in nefariousness by comparison.

The only good guy, Nasir, is a Gulf State emirate prince who is pushed aside by his corrupt brother, Meshal. Nasir wants democracy, rights for women, investment in a national infrastructure; Meshal wants the money for himself. The Americans support Meshal because democracy would cut deep into oil profits.

That’s already too much of the story, although there are several other subplots and I haven’t really spoiled the ending, and there are some first-class actors involved, including Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Matt Damon, Chris Cooper, and Jeffrey Wright.

As with Brokeback Mountain, I am fascinated with how the movie plays to audiences, since movies, I think, are the heart of popular culture and keys to social attitudes, values and preoccupations. The first thing I noticed is that most of the Rotten Tomatoes critics, at least, got it. Ebert, especially, nailed it, as he so often does. Here are three portions of his take on the technique of flooding you with more facts from more subplots than you can possibly take in at once:

...Syriana is a movie that suggests Congress can hold endless hearings about oil company profits and never discover the answer to anything, because the real story is so labyrinthine that no one – not oil company executives, not Arab princes, not CIA spies, not traders in Geneva, understands the whole picture.... I liked the way I experienced the film: I couldn't explain the story, but I never felt lost in it.... The more you describe it, the more you miss the point. It is not a linear progression from problem to solution. It is all problem. The audience enjoys the process, not the progress. We're like athletes who get so wrapped up in the game we forget about the score.

Another reviewer, Robert J Hawkins, has this to say about it:

It [will] certainly [resonate] with anyone who spends $3 a gallon to fill a gas tank and anyone who now understands that the war in Iraq has always been about one thing: oil.

Where Hawkins saw the movie the audience was made up mostly of Middle Easterners, “who were still clustered in small groups animatedly discussing the movie in their native tongues” when the last credits rolled off the screen.

Now this is where things get interesting to me. While the story takes place in the Gulf States, for a while only Egypt released it and it looked as if the startlingly frank portrayal of corruption and greed and Islamist terrorism would keep it from being shown elsewhere in the Arab world. But now, it turns out, Dubai is willing to show it after the screenwriter agreed to cut two minutes in which police savagely beat Pakistani workers looking for work. I take it this works because Dubai is breaking loose as an almost anything-goes state (in comparison to much of the Arab world, at least) and the emir and his sons suggest Saudis rather than emirate princes to anybody familiar with that part of the world.

That said, it nonetheless means audiences will have the chance to watch Arabic speaking actors portraying a struggle between emirate princes, one of whom wants to build democracy in which women participate as equals, and loses out because of American opposition to self-determination.

And that said, I’m curious about whether this could also backfire, since apparently the Arabic is pretty bad, as is the Farsi, and the Urdu is, according to one blog I just looked at, Hindi and not Urdu. I look on all this as a glass half full, since I was raised with “Ve haff vays to make you talk!” accented English in foreigner characters. Here, at least, there are efforts made to create a more realistic setting, at least to those who don’t speak the languages of the Islamic world. Whether they will overlook the lack of language sophistication and focus on an American portrayal of a very sinister American imperialism, where the real leaders of the world are Texas oil men and American presidents and congressmen are their lackeys, remains to be seen.

With the possible exception of the environment, no other issue effects the future of the planet as much the current confrontation between American neoconservative ideology and its many opponents, from anti-imperialist voices within the modern Western world to Al Qaeda and the full range of outraged Muslims from Morocco to Pakistan. No wonder there were Middle Easterners “still clustered in small groups animatedly discussing the movie” well past the rolling of the credits.

And what do we get from American film critics? Some of them, like Ebert (who gave it four stars) and the majority, actually, are aware of the import of this treatment by America’s leading popular cultural medium of this life and death struggle. Others missed it.

"Not all of the stories on display here are as relevant or interesting as others," says Jeff Vice of Deseret News in Salt Lake City. "Overly ambitious and too complicated," says Betty Jo Tucker, of Reel Talk Movie Reviews. A well-meaning, yet meandering and confusing political thriller," says Collin Souter, of (all references from One can only imagine how this perspective would strike any of the millions of Arabs, folks on the receiving end of American military invasions and manipulation of their governments. “Overly ambitious? You mean Hollywood should stick to Tom Cruise and War of the Worlds? Confusing? You mean because it took place in a foreign country?”

I’m not saying there’s no room for criticism of the acting, cinematography or structure of the film, but where the hell is the perspective of these three reviewers? Makes you think they’d find fault with the autobahns in Hitler’s Germany for not having decent signage.

Ebert gave it four stars. I’d give it five.


1. Ebert review:

2. Hawkins review:

3. Other reviews: See

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