Noah Lawrence is correct to argue that the social lessons of the Cold War, as told by Hollywood, are relevant today. Cold Warriors from Dick Cheney to Osama bin Laden are still the most powerful people in the world. Cinema and other social commentary, however, have a responsibility to respond to contemporary problems while they are still unfolding, making reference to real, current people and issues. “Syriana” is one film that attempts to do this.
“Syriana” received mixed reviews. It’s a serious, well-acted and subtle film, the critics agreed, but why does it have to be so complicated? “I want America to watch a serious movie about guns and oil, spooks and money, geopolitics and fractured family life, in all their Tolstoyan interconnectedness,” wrote Stuart Klawans for The Nation. “What I need, though, is for Matt Damon to zoom through a crazy car chase, followed by sex with a startling woman.” There are valid criticisms of Syriana, but that the film is too serious or confusing are not among them. I say, good for Stephen Gaghan and George Clooney for not belittling the intelligence of the American public. We don’t need another “Bourne Identity,” or for that matter, “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
Klawans got it backwards. What the English-speaking public needs right now is informed discussion about the oil industry, terrorism and America’s involvement in the Middle East. This sort of discussion is a civic imperative, and “Syriana” is the first major film to raise these issues simultaneously. The film is complex, even confusing, but this is precisely what makes it an accurate commentary. Gaghan wrote for the film’s Web site, “We are living in complex times, and I wanted ‘Syriana’ to reflect this complexity in a visceral way, to embrace it narratively. There are no good guys and no bad guys and there are no easy answers.”
It is by now a truism to say that the current global situation is complex, but “Syriana” goes a step further and actually begins to grasp the shape of this complicated situation. In the age of fundamentalisms and the “with us or against us” War on Terror, we have no choice but to attempt to understand what is going on in more than binary terms.
One thing that “Syriana” does to achieve this understanding is to point out how the black-and-white rhetoric of the current war actually obscures deep contradictions. How can the United States square its stated aim of democracy in the Middle East with its enthusiastic support for authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and other countries? In the film this situation is reflected in a CIA plot to assassinate the reform-minded Prince Nassir, who is one of two men ready to succeed the emir of an unnamed Persian Gulf state. The CIA, in collusion with American oil companies, wants Nassir’s brother, who is more Western- and business-friendly, to become emir.
Complexity is not the same thing as incomprehensible chaos. We can and must make ethical and political judgments in spite of the ambiguity. “Syriana” will frustrate the orthodoxies of both left and right. I would expect Richard Pearle or Noam Chomsky to be equally unsatisfied by this film. If you can tolerate a degree of ambiguity, you can tease out the wisdom that underlies the film.
The key move in “Syriana” is to point out the hybrid origins of terrorism. CIA officer Bob Barnes (played by George Clooney) is sent to Beirut to contact a mysterious thug who goes by the name “Moussaoui,” to hire him to assassinate a reform-minded Arab prince. His is the namesake of the alleged “20th hijacker” in the Sept. 11 plot, but the Moussaoui in the film talks like he grew up in New Jersey, and it is clear that he has a long-standing cooperative relationship to the CIA. Barnes addresses him as “Jack” or “Jerry,” but he insists, “My name is Moussaoui.”
Moussaoui turns out to be a torturer and a rogue. But in this moment the audience can see how the tactics of extra-judicial assassination, torture and terrorism are not the result of some cultural tendency in the Islamic or Arab worlds. Moussaoui and the other “terrorist” figures in the film are, in various ways, the products of a political encounter with modern American power. (Columbia University political scientist Mahmood Mamdani explains the dynamics of this encounter in his book “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” which is one of the best contributions on this subject in the last two years.)
If the rendezvous with Moussaoui reflects the CIA’s well-known support for terror through third and fourth parties during the late Cold War, then the end of the film, which I will not give away here, marks the post-Sept. 11 move towards open aggression.
The term “Syriana” is real foreign policy jargon for a hypothetical remaking of the Middle East where U.S. interests dominate, and the film is an important reflection on the consequences of this remaking.
Jared Malsin is a junior in Berkeley College.