Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 23, 2005


Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on November 23, 2005

If they handed out awards to movies for political awareness and seriousness of purpose, then surely “Syriana” would win first prize. Unfortunately, this ambitious film about oil, geopolitics, and terrorism is not very good.

“Syriana” was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote “Traffic,” another ambitious mess about Important Issues. It is based on ex-CIA agent Robert Baer’s book “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.” Unlike the typical Hollywood spy movie protagonist, Bob Barnes (the Robert Baer character played by George Clooney who put on 30 pounds to achieve some sort of verisimilitude–are CIA agents supposed to be fat?) is neither indefatigable nor virtuous. In fact, he has a lot in common with John Le Carré’s George Smiley, the fictional British MI5 agent who is abused by his superiors and cynical about the Cold War he was assigned to fight. In this case, the War Against Terrorism has replaced the Cold War.

Bob Barnes finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between rival factions in a Mideast oil emirate led by two brothers who are rivals for their father’s throne. One brother is an Ataturk type modernizer who sees a pending partnership with Chinese oil companies as a bootstrap for progress. His brother is a playboy and a lout who favors continued partnership with United States oil companies that offer lower prices for his country’s dwindling oil supplies. This might be the first Hollywood film in which the Hubbert Curve serves as a plot mechanism.

Matt Damon, George Clooney’s co-star from the Oceans 11 and 12 flicks, makes an appearance as an oil consultant advising the good prince about how to exploit his country’s resources better. To Gaghan’s dubious credit, this character is about as lifeless as a real-world financial analyst. Verisimilitude will be served, I guess. I kept hoping that somebody would kidnap him or something to liven up the action.

As it turns out, Bob Barnes does get kidnapped in Beirut and all sorts of nasty things are done to him, including having his fingernails getting plucked out one by one. His Lebanese captor, who Barnes’s superiors assure him is a soldier just like him (another Le Carré touch), lets him know that he learned this technique from the Chinese who used it on Falun Gong. Speaking as somebody who was besieged by this cult all over Manhattan some months back, I am afraid that I will have to give critical support to the Chinese government.

Hovering over all this is an imminent deal that will bring together two huge oil companies, one with tentacles in Kazakhstan and the other in the Emirate just mentioned. As might be expected, the oil company executives are really not very nice. This is the one place in which the film’s nonstop quest for shades of gray relaxes. These executives and the politicians they are in bed with have been seen a thousand times before but to greater advantage in movies like “China Syndrome” or “The Pelican Brief.” However, Gaghan wouldn’t stoop to something as low as melodrama since it would get in the way of his message that vast institutions driven by profit are the root of evil rather than particular villains. But to get such a message across, he would be better served by a blog or the Nation Magazine rather than a movie.

As I stated above, Gaghan wrote “Traffic,” a film about the drug trade and his most successful past effort. Of course, one has to be charitable in describing this film as successful since it is measured against such calamities as “Havoc,” a 2005 film he wrote about L.A. Chicano gangs that was directed by ex-leftist documentarian Barbara Kopple–alas. This straight to video mess was described in a user’s comment (i.e., not a professional critic) on imdb.com in the following terms: “I will agree with others when it was said that this was a pitiful excuse for a movie. It was nothing short of a porno. Within the first 20 minutes the f word was said 67 times (yes i counted) i had nothing better to do. There was no plot to follow.” No wonder Hollywood can’t fill the theater seats nowadays.

However, the inspiration for “Syriana,” such as it is, comes from “Traffik,” the British television film rather than the Soderberg film it inspired. In “Traffik,” there is a commitment to showing how the drug trade snares poor farmers into its web, in that case a Pakistani poppy grower who is simply trying to put food on his family’s table. Soderberg’s “Traffic,” by contrast, cuts this aspect out and aspires for a sort of “Miami Vice” glitter.

Once again, there is a poor Pakistani in “Syriana,” in this case an oil worker who loses his job in the Emirate after the two oil companies join forces. He eventually hooks up with a radical Islamic plot to blow up an oil tanker. It is the most satisfying moment in the film.

When I arrived at Loew’s for a press screening, I was subjected to the kind of search I usually get at airports. Since the film was about Mideast politics, the first thing that entered my mind is that security was looking for bombs. As it turned out, they were looking for concealed video cameras. It seems that the bootleg problem is much more on Hollywood’s mind than making competent films. They should have not wasted their time. With the kind of audience reception that this turkey will receive, I wouldn’t worry about piracy. I’d worry more about empty seats.

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