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Syriana – straw men burn too easily, lets the bad guys go free

George Clooney

George Clooney

Syriana – Stephen Gaghan

Pascal’s wager: we can’t know whether God exists so we should weigh the benefits of belief. If we assume He does exist and act virtuously, then even if He doesn’t we have lost nothing. However if we assume He doesn’t and act badly then eternal punishment is the penalty. For Pascal a philosophical no-brainer.

This has always struck me as a thoroughly immoral conclusion. If in contrast, one assumes there is no God but behaves as virtuously as possible, the absence of expected next life rewards renders those acts truly virtuous, being good for their own sake not for the rewards they may earn.

What has this to do with Syriana? Well either directly or indirectly the film poses this moral dilemma in two forms. In one plot line two impressionable Muslim young men, their livelihood destroyed with indifference by a corrupt US Oil Corporation deal are manipulated by an Imam into becoming suicide bombers. The second form of the dilemma runs not just through the action of the movie but underlies the assumptions upon which it was made. The belief that power, political, economic and military is inevitably in the hands of corrupt men. Everyone is a victim: the suicide bombers of political and economic circumstances and cynical manipulation of their faith. The American people of the irreducibly corrupt capitalists and politicians using military and economic power in pursuance of their own profit concealed as national interest.

Everything about Syriana invites us to judge it as something more than simply a movie thriller in a political context. From its documentary hand held style to a fractured narrative that conveys more a sense of a dramatically unfolding news story than a plotted work of fiction. And just like a news story we are bewildered by the interlocking events until the various motivations and links are brought together and revealed at the end. Both the political events and perspective of the film’s substance and its cinematic form, renders the audience passive. We can’t change the world as depicted or understand the film as shown, until its meaning is revealed not explained, for dramatic and emotional effect at the end.

This theme of crude liberal paranoia harms most of all, rational balanced real liberal principles. Hardly I think George Clooney’s aim. It is ironic that having made a superb film that shows how in an actual case public paranoia can be induced to serve illiberal politics (Good Night And Good Luck), he should make a film which itself can be argued to have the same tendency. No one film has that power but cumulatively the ‘Hollywoodisation’ of politics can have a harmful effect. This year alone we have had The Constant Gardner where international pharmaceutical companies are irredeemably cynical and indifferent to using human guinea pigs in pursuit of profit; Lords of War (arms trade rules OK); and Munich, The New World and Jarhead, all systematically blurring the distinction between fact and fiction. Let alone paranoid sci-fi like War of The Worlds.

Syriana would be a much more entertaining film if it had dropped its pretensions, let the audience in on a more disciplined and coherent narrative and spent time on developing characters we might care about rather than stereotyped pieces on a phoney political chessboard. Some of the characterisation is crass bordering on the racist: for example the tall elegantly suited democratic Prince Nasir has a PhD from Oxford and studied in America whereas his sleazy, pool-playing brother isn’t fit to run a brothel. And guess which one enjoys American support? The almost literal road to Damascus conversion of Matt Damon from razor-sharp oil analyst power broker to chastened family man is about as deep as making corrugated cardboard from the flat kind. The story line concerning the death of his son, is just indecently rushed, totally redundant and pointless. As is Amanda Peet’s role as his wife.

I can just about discern a legitimate liberal motivation behind this film but it needs a bit of good will. As a straightforward thriller it is too confusingly convoluted to sustain more than occasional suspense and tension. As an attempt to grapple with serious moral and political problems it is simply not up to it. Its moral position is truth-be-told not very moral at all. We are invited to identify with Clooney’s CIA man Bob Barnes in this instance because they cut him free to take the rap, yet it is clear that when he was in favour in his day job – eliminating the odd human being in the service of his country was AOK.

I am at least as cynical as the next person about the aggressive ambition of some politicians, greed and self-importance of corporate leaders, and the flexible morality of many in the secret services. But it is naïve, foolish and self-defeating to pretend that everyone is corrupt and that honourable people responsive to moral argument do not exist in these areas. If everyone is corrupt, nothing can be done. Passivity. Victimhood. Also we must take seriously the fact that key dishonourable figures of power are intelligent (with one notable exception), rigorously well organised and tenaciously entrenched. They know how to control the flow of information and manipulate its impact – including movies. To the real vested interests in corporate America, government and private, the Dick Cheney’s of this world, Syriana is simple-minded and no kind of threat. Why, ask them nicely and I bet they’ll even invest in such ineffective challenges, because they don’t care where the profit comes from and paranoid liberals’ money is as good as anyone else’s and more fun to take. Especially as these cynical paranoid victims can be induced to use such movies as displacement activity for actually getting organised, getting elected and then really taking them on.

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