Syriana: an anti-political thriller

spiked-film: Stephen Gaghan’s study of the oil industry is shot through with conspiratorial cynicism.

Karl Sharro

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Syriana, directed by Stephen Gaghan, on general release.

I felt slightly disappointed when the credits started rolling at the end of Syriana. I was half-expecting the cast to come together and break into a spontaneous rendition of Monty Python’s ‘Always look on the bright side of life’, but sadly the film wrapped up on the same high note of pessimism that it sustained for two hours.

The utter lack of humour was consistent, I guess, with the self-important air that has surrounded this film, from the way it was promoted as the first ever carbon-neutral major Hollywood release to the campaign that it ‘inspired’, Oil Change: ‘a campaign to reduce our dependence on oil.’ This is a film that desperately wants to be taken seriously.

Having brandished their liberal credentials so vehemently, the filmmakers clearly intended Syriana to be more than your average action flick. This is Hollywood gone political, big time. Syriana is a thoroughly researched film that is firmly based in reality and is articulating a politically meaningful discourse. Or is it?

It’s a political thriller direct by Stephen Gaghan, starring George Clooney as a career CIA operative who starts to unravel the truth about the work he has devoted his life to. The aim is to shine a light on the intrigues and corruptions of the global oil industry, by weaving together the various stories of those involved in it – from the up-and-coming oil broker (Matt Damon) to those who toil in the oilfields.

The film’s drive stems from a deep cynicism towards politics, a mistrustful outlook that sees politics as inherently corrupt. Whereas a healthy sense of detachment in art could develop genuine insights into the workings of the world, Syriana blindfolds itself from the outset and actively prevents such insights from developing. It does this not only through the treatment of its subject matter but also in its cinematic language. The visual and narrative incoherence of the film reinforces the filmmakers’ reluctance to impose any interpretive order on the world, which is surely a prerequisite for any meaningful political debate. Perhaps we should recognise this is as artistic mastery in which form and content blend harmoniously.

Halfway through the film you realise that the complexity of the plot, much commented on by reviewers, is not intended to keep the viewer engaged but is meant to make full comprehension elusive. The film shows none of the mastery required to pull the strands of such a diverse plot together and push it towards a neat resolution. Instead, the filmmakers create an ever-expanding universe of accidental characters and sub-plot lines that perpetuate a sense of futility and detachment. Some of the characters are brought in only to utter some ‘wisdom’ about life and then disappear altogether. Sub-plots are abandoned wholesale.

The jerky camera movement, unsettling focus and grainy footage take their effect on the audience, and you soon shift into ‘dazed and confused’ mode. Some less charitable souls might accuse director Stephen Gaghan of lifting the cinematographic and editing techniques straight out of Traffic, for which he wrote the screenplay. But the technique is also consistent with Syriana‘s ‘message: ‘We are too dazed and confused to arrive at any comprehensive understanding of the world and the best we can hope for are some partial bits of information here and there.’ Gaghan for one is not going to abuse his privileged position as director in order to impose his own vision on the audience. This is truly ‘egalitarian’ filmmaking.

Gaghan’s attitude to writing and directing Syriana can be described as reluctant authorship. He holds back from privileging any of the ‘truths’ that the characters uphold. This moral generosity is exhibited primarily through a kind of equivalency in scene structure. For instance, we see the American father having lunch with his son and discussing his son’s plans for university. That’s followed by a scene in which the Pakistani father is talking to his son and contemplating their future prospects.

In one scene, an Islamic cleric is addressing a crowd of pupils sitting around him on the floor, preaching them a fundamentalist view of Islam. A similar situation is later recreated with another man in traditional white robes sitting on the floor addressing a group of people. This time, however, it is the reformer Prince trying to convince his audience of the necessity of change in their society. This ‘scenic equivalency’ allows each of the characters to voice their different convictions equally, inviting us to acknowledge that while their versions of the truth might be different to ours, that does not make them less valid. As a result, we’re not sure to whom our sympathy should be directed. Gaghan’s ‘reluctant authorship’ is revealed as an expression of moral relativism.

Gaghan employs another tool to make his own voice heard, through an off-screen newsreader who can be heard clearly in the background. These almost accidental sentences are clearly his own pronouncements on the politics of the USA. In one scene we hear the voice say: ‘More money has been spent on the syndication rights to Seinfeld than on the last presidential election.’ In another: ‘There are 10 millions Muslims in America.’ You soon realise there is a pattern to these statements. Gaghan apparently belongs to the ‘there is no truth, but there are statistics’ school of thought. I can imagine him playing Trivial Pursuit with Naomi Klein and Michael Moore, and trading various statistical gems.

Occasionally, when one of these statements is deemed especially important, Gaghan makes one of the characters, usually the most unlikely candidate, utter it. Prince Nasir points out: ‘When a nation with five per cent of the world’s population spends 50 per cent of the world’s military budget, it’s a sure sign that that nation’s influence is on the decline.’ The ultimate pronouncement is made by the fundamentalist cleric: ‘The divide between human nature and modern life cannot be bridged by free trade. No. It cannot be cured with deregulation, privatisation, openness or lower taxes. No. The pain of living in the modern world will never be solved by a liberal society.’ The same words could have been as easily pronounced by a discontented left-wing Western intellectual – but they would have not carried the same weight.

The film poster proclaims that ‘everything is connected’, but Gaghan and his collaborators do not attempt to explain or dissect this mysterious connectedness beyond promoting a sense that there are invisible hands pulling the strings behind the scenes. And oil, of course. The filmmakers seem to be saying that this universal connectedness, the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in fact oil. This certainly echoes popular sentiments. The war in Iraq, global warming, poverty – all of these things, the filmmakers suggest, are caused by oil, or more specifically, the politics of oil.

By viewing the world through this absurd Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy prism, the filmmakers surrender all political meaningfulness. In a sense, the film becomes an admission of defeat and of the futility of politics and aspirations for change.

To reinforce this last point, Gaghan severely ‘punishes’ the characters who attempt to interfere with the complicated and bleak world he has created. Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) meets an unhappy ending, and CIA operative Bob Barnes (George Clooney) gets badly tortured. Oil broker Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) suffers a terrible personal tragedy. What distinguishes these characters is that they are uncompromising individuals who are dedicated to their ideals and believe they can make the world a better place – and it is these characters Gaghan chooses to single out for punishment.

In the bleak ending to the film, Gaghan restricts the possibilities of action in the Syriana universe to two choices: disengagement or self-annihilation. This political movie ends up reinforcing a sense of futility about politics – and we don’t even get to look at the brighter side of life.

Read on:

In spiked-film last week: Dolan Cummings on Traveller Girl.

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