by Andrew Tracy
Dir.Stephen Gaghan, U.S., Warner Bros.
I sometimes wonder if we’re all seeing the same movies. Frequent, violent and bloody disagreement may be our stock in trade, but willful misrepresentation is something else entirely. While Armond White may not be a measuring stick for any degree of critical scrupulousness, his fanatical hagiography of Spielberg’s Munich and vitriolic dismissal of Michael Haneke’s Caché—the latter a truly astonishing display of critical dishonesty—depicts in an extreme form the culture war currently being fought within the informed critical establishment: a war, essentially, over what form of political cinema we’re going to champion post–Fahrenheit 9/11, which sent the self-beleaguered left field of the critical contingent scrambling.
While some may not quite agree with Joe Dante in Cinema Scope that Moore’s film is a “beacon of truth,” he incisively notes the fallout from its “success”: “[Moore’s] last picture made a lot of money, but he was vilified for it so much that he’s practically in hiding. The right wing has marginalized him to the point where his movie has been completely discredited in America.” It’s hardly just the right that’s responsible for that marginalization, however. It’s a fallacy unique, I think, to us critics on the other side of the fence that when it comes to political films, we’re so afraid of getting behind potential white elephants that we go hunting for white whales instead, for the pure, unassailable, and total. It’s what has led many smart folks to trumpet Munich’s vagaries as some kind of profound universalism, while dismissing the specifics of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana as trifling.
In the latter case, the predictably ecstatic and predictably unenlightening response of great swathes of middlebrow critics to Gaghan’s film produced a predictably sneering reaction among us “young turks” and our elder statesmen, and it’s the bloody predictability of it all that I found most depressing: a sign, I think, of laziness in both camps, and a stubborn determination among the defiant younger crowd to avoid the deadening company of the Eberts, Schickels, and Denbys. But as Arthur Koestler said, in rather more fraught circumstances, “You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons. . . This fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity, it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence.”
This is not to say that there may not be critics who genuinely disliked Syriana, and that they may have eminently good reasons for doing so. It’s only that I’ve yet to see any such appraisal that doesn’t seem to be addressed to the film’s prospective supporters rather than the film itself. Most are simply content to point out the film’s transparency and leave it at that, as if clarity of purpose and presentation was an aesthetic sin and a political dead-end. Perhaps it’s the formalist predilections of so many in our ranks that wire us against a film so resolutely—and appropriately—of the surface. Many of us are happier unpacking genuine allegories like Land of the Dead or sham ones like War of the Worlds than simply following the dots of an explicitly political film—or, in the disparaging language which gets trotted out for these occasions, a “thesis exercise.”
Why must that term be so implicitly damning, though? When did a thesis become synonymous with an untruth? As the French theoretician Henri Lefebvre put it, “the political in its oldest meaning [is] the theoretical and practical knowledge of social life in the community.” The political is theory and action conjoined, and considering that Syriana is almost all action—links, connections, things being done rather than just being—it’s telling that the bulk of both the praise and condemnation has fallen upon its few “theoretical” tentpoles: Tim Blake Nelson’s “corruption is why we win” speech, Matt Damon’s audience-baiting rant to Alexander Siddig’s Prince Nasir, Christopher Plummer’s diabolically silky quotables. These varyingly regrettable moments—which, hardly coincidentally, are also the ones that turn up most often in the advertisements—give both sides something to grab onto: the Message for the middlebrows, and the (smug/paranoid/partisan/vacuous/complacent) falsity of that message for the high. Yet it’s the numerous points in-between which constitute not only the film’s real content, but the weight of its political being, and it’s these very points which have gone largely unremarked upon. Resentful that the film is connecting the dots for us, we forget that it’s the connections rather than the dots which are important. In refuting the viability of the film’s “positions,” the majority of critical comment upon Syriana has passed the film through the filter of its own various positions, ruthlessly distorting it in the process.
Of course, I have a position to put forth myself: namely, that I like Syriana just fine and think that it positively contributes to a discussion of the pressing matters it depicts. I don’t have the presumption to claim that I alone have seen Syriana without passing it through some “bullshit ideological filter,” or that many of what I see as the film’s virtues may not double as flaws in another’s perspective, or that we should merely be grateful for any “major” movie that is About Something. But I do believe that the pre-emptive cynicism which so many critics evidently brought to the film is more a guaranty against being possibly caught out by compromise—after all, any Hollywood movie pretending to political import must be compromised, no?—than any kind of honest reaction to the film itself. “[Syriana] does just what the multinational global crooks and their right-wing political allies would have it do—underscore the lay observer's sense of bafflement and powerlessness,” says Laura Sinagra in the Village Voice Take 7 poll, incidentally utilizing the very generalizations for which the movie has been undeservedly taken to task. And while she may be right, such a reading can only be gleaned by paying attention to and engaging in discussion with what the film so acutely depicts.
After all, if we reject out of hand a film which directly addresses a determining reality in our world while generating endless babble about those which hide their “politics” behind a better or worse aesthetic smokescreen, aren’t we doing the other side’s work for them just as well? If we pay more attention to Hayden Christiansen’s “If you’re not with me, etc.” line in that piece-of-shit sci-fi flick than to a film that tries to show how our world works, aren’t we just lazily surfing the zeitgeist and ignoring what goes on in the zeit itself? Even while smacking the film down, Noel Murray in the Voice cuts closer to the heart of the matter: “As public opinion about the war in Iraq began turning, critics started seeing anti-war commentary in everything from A History of Violence to Star Wars. . . At this point, even the blunt policy wonkery of Syriana is preferable to another political shadow-play. Sometimes subtlety is overrated.”
So here’s just a few of the wholly unsubtle details sliding across Syriana’s depthless surface, in riposte to some of the distorting charges made against it. To wit:
The film is an exercise in onanistic, self-congratulatory liberalism. The most common, and lazy, of the reactions to Syriana, given at least an eloquent phrasing by Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central. A few different lines of inquiry emerge from here. Firstly, what do we mean when we speak of “liberalism” in this context? Since it’s certainly not a question of film aesthetics—Stanley Kramer, after all, was as stodgily conservative a stylist as they come—it must therefore be a certain set of values expressed implicitly or explicitly, but unmistakably, within the film. As for “onanistic” and “self-congratulatory,” the question here is of the tone in which those values are imparted and the relative substance they carry—thus the terms would suggest, to my mind, cant shorn of determination, airy pronouncements bereft of specificity, and a final opting out of passing judgment on the very subjects it had presumed to criticize.
Where do we find any of this in Syriana? If there is certainly a moral onus hovering above its identification and observation of the mechanisms of global power, it cannot be reduced to mere partisanship and self-vindication. If anything, the film is exemplary for giving us no safe place to lay our righteous heads. Clooney’s CIA agent may speak hard truths about Iranian repression, but, contra Syriana supporter David Denby’s blinkered observation, he’s no “nobly burdened figure”: he’s a kidnapper, a murderer, and, in his dramatic and unexplained final action, remarkably ineffectual (nor is his ineffectualness celebrated as martyrdom). Damon’s Innocent Abroad is given no points for his naiveté and cluelessness, nor is his return to wifey and remaining kiddie painted as some kind of redemption; Jeffrey Wright’s buttoned-down attorney is a pivot with a few tricks up his sleeve; Siddig’s heir apparent may want to introduce free elections and female emancipation to his country, but his laudable initiatives are tied up with his hard-nosed business acumen (selling oil to the Chinese rather than the Americans, after all, is no great leap in moral alliance). Syriana is about functions, not values—or values only to the extent of their functions.
If the charge does not, then, reside with anything in the film itself, then it is more a swipe against rich, white movie stars with well-known political affiliations acting in a film which they no doubt thought was Important. This is tabloidism, not criticism, and thus singularly unhelpful.
The film is a conspiratorial fantasy for a lazy left who ascribe all the evils of the world to corporate bogeymen. Don’t know about anyone else, but I see nothing fantastical in positing collusion between big business, the intelligence community, and departments of government; simply keeping up with the news and reading a bit of history is enough, one would hope, to testify to that basic reality. In any event, Syriana is not about master plots, but alignments of interest. While kingpin figures abound (Plummer’s “cat’s paw,” Chris Cooper’s volatile oilman, Clooney’s boss at CIA headquarters), not every one of them knows precisely the details about what everybody else is doing. Conspiracy is about connections made, not a single radiating point of origin. When a Texas oilmen’s dinner is intercut with a CIA assassination in the Middle East, the film is not simply saying that this equals that; rather, it has shown that the one is connected to the other through numerous channels of coordinated and uncoordinated actions. So a conspiracy, yes, but not in any fantastic sense. Unless, that is, we share the view of self-professed “liberal” (how little these labels matter) Richard Cohen in the Washington Post, who scoffs at the notion that the CIA would assassinate “a perfectly nice Middle Eastern potentate to ensure that his oil remains in friendly hands. This sort of thing is distinctly against the law, a true career-ender at the CIA and elsewhere, but never mind. A movie does not have to stick to the facts.” Though it seems that a columnist can cling to ignorance like a life preserver.
The film gives the illusion of insider knowledge to first impress us with our ignorance, then convince us that we have been duly wised up. From Jonathan Rosenbaum at the Slate Movie Club, alluding to the film’s air of authenticity and essentially agreeing with Sinagra that the film is appealing to and validating our complacency. This may have validity if the film tried to mystify its portrait of professionalism, to play on the sensual thrill of powerlessness in the face of the secret, “true” world of expertise. I’d contend, though, that the sometimes bewildering speed with which Gaghan has his characters display their professional erudition is not intended to impress us with their possession of that knowledge, but rather focus us upon what they do with it, and the consequences thereof: Wright’s neat betrayal of his professional pater, Damon linking his economic know-how to an attempted coup, Clooney turning his spook tactics against his masters. There’s no shadow-world Le Carré romanticism here; it’s the fact that everything is so out in the open that makes Syriana feel convincing, and that connects it to what we can read about in those news media which deign to report on such matters.
All right, then: if we concede that the movie does present some measure of fact, it does so, in Sinagra’s words, “at the expense of any real education.” It’s luxurious despair rather than a call to arms, a confirmation of political impotence rather than a spur to political action. This is the most contentious point in the debate, I believe, and the one most dependent upon the eye of the particular beholder. But I’d offer that my reasons for supporting Syriana, and any points I may have hopefully scored in its favor, are because it has not impressed me as a paean to powerlessness, but an aid to clarity. Lucidity is not the same as pessimism, in Bresson’s formulation—and please, no scoffing accusations that I’m affixing Gaghan to those starry climes. Perhaps the film’s brusqueness, speed and efficiency appeal to me because it ties in to an idea I favour that movies—even $50 million Hollywood movies—can sometimes act as missives rather than masterpieces, can forego their own aesthetic completion in order to impart at least some degree of information about the wider world. As a film that, by way of its very design, points resolutely away from itself, Syriana cannot exist without the talk around it, but fer chrissakes, let’s talk about it—about specifically why its strategies succeed or fail, about why it’s accurate or misleading, about whether it’s truly political or merely dressed up in political trappings—and avoid the vacuous generalizations of the middlebrows or the contemptuous dismissals of our more skeptical breed.
So, in light of one more perceived debit—that the film merely presents ideas instead of dramatizing them, that it’s more or less aesthetically null—a consideration of some of the cinematic virtues existing apart from the talk the film seeks to generate— indeed, those things without which it would not be worth talking about at all. The young Pakistani immigrant worker’s path to religious fundamentalism through those milieus with which any teenager in any country would be familiar: drinking with his buddies in the field, playing soccer, watching videos. The portrayal of Clooney’s torturer as a thoroughly Westernized Arab who angrily insists on the use of his Muslim name, one small twist of character which globalizes rather than regionalizes the conflict at hand. Gaghan’s keen eye for setting and the human presence within it, seeking neither to seduce us with the decadent luxury of the Arab princes nor flatter our consciences with the immigrant workers’ cramped quarters (indistinguishable from the genuine shanties on view in Michael Glawogger’s superlative documentary Workingman’s Death). The efficient and effective shorthand (which is not the same as sketchiness) of character and scene, which intimate unrevealed depths while demonstrating how those depths are subordinated to the relentlessly moving chain of events.
Perhaps this is what I find most refreshing about Syriana, why I think it is far from pessimistic: it shows clearly and forcefully that a lot of frantic activity is required to create what we think of, in our darker hours, as the inevitable. If Syriana is a systemic narrative rather than a dramatic one, it affords us a closely observed and entirely plausible glimpse of the loose, unstable, and improvisatory ways that system may work—and that, flaws aside, is certainly cause for discussion.