December 16, 2005

A Critique of Syriana

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I saw Syriana with a few friends last Friday. My initial reaction was that it was not a very good movie. However, I have delayed posting any real substantive commentary on Syriana because I wanted some time to further reflect upon the movie and the messages presented therein. After all, I do believe that Syriana attempts to tackle some very important and highly relevant issues.

IMPORTANT: SPOILER ALERT. If you want to see this movie, then you may not want to read any further. Notwithstanding, come back after you have done so and let me know if you concur.

Why didn’t I like Syriana?

1. The characters were completely underdeveloped. This may be primarily due to the fact that the movie tracks many different “main” characters and several different interwoven story lines. As a result, you really have to listen closely to uncover any history or background on a given character. Nonetheless, I had no real reason to care for any of the characters (other than, of course, Matt Damon's character - what father could ever not feel his pain?). Why was Bob a hero? Clearly, you could sense the director's view that this was, in fact, the main hero of the story. However, when I go to a movie, I like to be able to come to that judgment on my own. I just didn't feel like rooting for anyone.

2. It was essentially TRAFFIC 2: BIG OIL. I realize that Syriana and Traffic were made by the same people. However, who likes watching the same movie? While I enjoyed Traffic and found it to be a very compelling movie, Syriana was presented in the exact same manner as Traffic. I kept being reminded of Traffic. For example, the use of interwoven story lines of several main characters. It was certainly exciting and revolutionary technique - now, it feels like re-hashing the same format. How about trying something new?

3. The movie came across as nothing more than a left-wing conspiracy theory. I mean really. For this movie to be believable, you have to believe that oil companies run our government and direct our foreign policy. While oil companies may have considerable influence, I have been unable to turn off my cynicism that keeps screaming - that is way too simplistic.

4. The idea that the CIA or the military is used to do the bidding of private oil companies was a bit too much to swallow.

5. According to Syriana, it is the United States and the oil companies that stand in the way of true democratic reform. Evidently, there are plenty of young heirs to Middle Eastern thrones that want to establish democracy, to provide freedom to their people, to establish women's rights and to enrich their subjects. Unfortunately, the evil United States kills such heirs before they can take power. While the United States does have a sordid past that includes supporting dictators when it was convenient to do so, the movie goes a bit too far. For example, the United States did support Saddam in his war with Iran. However, Iran was not then nor is it now a flagship for Arab democracy. Iran has been run by a brutal theocratic/authoritarian regime. Of course, we did support the Shah of Iran. However, the alternative was Khomeini, who was no civil libertarian either. So, the film essentially takes the United States' history and turns it on its head. Rather than merely portraying the United States support of Middle East dictators as the problem (which, clearly, it is a problem), the movie goes one step too far to argue that the United States has actually intervened to stop democratic reform.

Last time I checked, however, the United States has been in the business of exporting democracy to the Middle East. Iraq is the perfect example. Yet, I am sure that the United States intervention in Iraq, which freed over 24,000,000 people from a brutal dictatorship, will receive no credit by this filmmaker or any of his left wing fans. That is somewhat hypocritical, isn't it?? I guess democracy in the Middle East is good, unless, of course, the United States is responsible for bringing the democracy to Middle East

The movie totally ignores or downplays the fact that democracy is not spreading to Middle Eastern countries because such countries are, in fact, run by authoritarian groups, monarchies and theocrats - none of which are likely to relinquish their power any time soon. While U.S. support of these rulers may not be too helpful to the cause of democratic reform, aren't the existent of these rulers barriers too?

6. According to Syriana, unemployment leads to terrorism. The film portrays a group of Pakistani oil field workers being laid off from their work when a Chinese company buys the oil field in which they are working. After visiting a madrassa, two of these oil field workers are lured into a short-lived career as suicide bombers. The film's focus on economics as opposed to religious fanatacism is disappointing. The despair that is associated with unemployment and poverty may, in fact, play a role in some terrorist's entrance into the world of religious fanaticism. It is religious fanatacism, however, that leads to Islamic terrorism. The film downplays the role of religious fanatacism in favor of an economical explanation. Last time I checked, Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Zarqawi or Atta (and his gang of 19) were certainly not impoverished or from poor families.

7. In Syriana, the two young terrorists are essentially portrayed as sympathetic characters. Their suicide is portrayed heroically.

8. The terrorist group Hezzbolah is portrayed as a group of good samaritans that intervenes to assist an American CIA agent. Yeah, that would really happen...

9. The Iranian government is considered to be an enemy (true enough, although, the movie never explains why), but the Committee to Liberate Iran is viewed as a shadowy organization that is dangerous because it wants to overthrow the Iranian government. That makes little sense.

10. The movie dwelled on the alleged problem of corruption in government and our oil corporations, yet gave us no real hope that such corruption could ever be overcome.

11. The movie portrays the CIA as entirely incompetent (o.k., that may not be too far off) and unsupportive of its agents. George Clooney's character is sent on missions that appear to have very little value or importance - just to get him out of the office (evidently, his character writes a lot of memos). When the mission backfires, his character is disavowed. But, the film doesn't stop there. Rather, the CIA sicks the FBI on Clooney's character. Sorry, but I cannot imagine the FBI would really take the time to investigate an alleged attempted murder by an American CIA agent oversees when it is an attempted murder of an Iranian national on foreign soil. Jurisdictional issues, aren't there?

12. One of the central premises of the movie is that corruption is bad. Bribing foreign officials is, in fact, against the law. Yet, it is somehow o.k. for George Clooney's character to threaten to kill the head of a law firm and his family?

13. Iraq disproves the central theme of Syriana - i.e., that our foreign policy is based centrally open opening up oil markets for our oil companies. If our foreign policy was, in fact, so driven by the needs of our oil companies, then why in the world did we place an embargo on Iraq for over a decade? Why did we place sanctions on Iraq for so long? It would have clearly been in the oil companies' best interests to be permitted to freely trade and do business with the Saddam controlled Iraq. Yet, the United States government made it illegal.

14. The inclusion of Benet Holliday's father, the alcoholic, adds nothing to the movie. Maybe, it adds some humanity to Holliday by showing he has "real world problems". But, it certainly has little, if nothing, to do with the plot.

15. The tragedy that befalls Matt Damon's character was, in my opinion, completely unnecessary. At one point, it is insinuated that Matt Damon's company gets a lucrative consulting contract because the Arab Prince feels sorry for Damon. It is this consulting contract, which the filmmaker clearly disdains and uses to somehow show that Damon's character is either greedy or has sold out his principles. Is Damon's character supposed to turn the contract down on principle? If so, what is the principle? I really don't get it. Clearly, the death of the son of Damon's character was an unfortunate accident.

16. Contrary to what many have written, I did not find it too hard to follow. At the end of the day, I felt somewhat bored.This is not your ordinary everyday spy thriller. There is little, if any, action. Most of the intrigue takes place in spoken dialogue (if you can call it that - most of the speaking between the characters consists of, essentially, the characters making speeches).
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