Sunday, December 11, 2005

Some thoughts on "Syriana"

Warning: This post contains spoilers for those who haven't seen the movie yet!

I recently went with a friend of mine to see the film "Syriana". I was taken with the first rate acting and the density and elegance of the editing. As I left the theater, however, I had the impression that all of this was a facade for something very banal and perhaps even sinister.

The film has been widely praised for its disturbing portrayal of the international oil business, and several critics have pointed to its conspiracy theory plot. Many critics have tried to portray the presentation as in some way nuanced or complex. My impression, however, was quite different. The message, not so subtly imbedded amongst all the quiet dialogue, is this: the U.S. government actively conspires with the oil industry to subvert the sovereignty of other nations, in this case Saudi Arabia, with the sole interest of supporting American companies and with flagrant disregard for the majority of people. This is what causes terrorism.

Now, this is a fair enough statement to make on its own, and one, in some regards, not entirely removed from the likely truth. Yet I find it both dishonest and cowardly to make such a blunt point in the form of a work of fiction- one which, moreover, is based "loosely" on a non-fiction work (how loosely, I don't know).

The message of the film is in essence an accusation, yet because it is a work of fiction it isn't based on actual fact, and indeed doesn't claim to be, it romoves itself from the arena of serious debate. I heard an interview with the writer/director, in which he claimed that the film was informed by what he had observed in his travels in the Middle East. If he had indeed revealed the sort of vast conspiracy that the film portrays, one would think that he would present his finding as fact. Surely this would cause a scandal of rarely seen proportions. Equally certain, however, is that the exact events of the film, or even a facsimile thereof, have not taken place. What, then, is the purpose of this project?

I would be more willing to accept this film as an exploration of certain highly relevant themes, were it not for the simplistic portrayal of the characters and their motivations. All of the government officials and corporate executives are clearly only interested in personal profit, and completely indifferent in the suffering of others, and sometimes even interested in perpetuating it. George Clooney pursues his work as a CIA agent so vigorously because he's alienated from his family, and is promptly killed once he begins to develop a conscience. Overall, the motivations for the characters are ultimately completely transparent.

What makes this far worse, however, is that the filmmakers attempt to create the appearance of sophistication and ambiguity where none exist. Most of the dialogue and acting serves to rather confusingly circumscribe what amounts to crude characterizations of people and geopolitical events. I find this method deeply insulting to the audience's intelligence.

Most disturbing, however, is the fact that so many people, all part of the educated liberal-left, have already embraced this film, as no doubt others will in the coming weeks. In doing so, their intelligence has been successfully and rightly insulted.

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