Monday, March 20, 2006

Syriana

George Clooney is supposed to have said of his latest film Syriana: ‘It’s ballsy, and we’re going to get into a lot of trouble for it’. ‘With whom?’, I want to ask.

Syriana is arresting, intelligent and well worth your movie-going while, but one thing it is not is political. This might seem an odd thing to say about a film that purports to be about US energy dependence and its impact on policy in the Middle East. Yet I am still trying to understand why a film that culminates in a US military strike in a Middle Eastern Emirate and that explains that event as the product of a thoroughly sleazy corporate-state nexus, failed to arouse the slightest glimmer of political outrage in me. This despite its resonance with recent political events that did outrage me and that I did analyse in similar terms.

One problem is that the plot is so fiendishly complicated that I left the film obsessing about how the trees related to one another, instead of reflecting on the woods. With five compelling storylines following a maverick CIA operative through the ruthless labyrinthine world of international espionage, a crafty Washington lawyer performing due diligence on a corporate oil merger, an idealistic and ambitious financial analyst advising an Emir-in-waiting, and two Pakistani labourers recruited for a suicide mission against American oil interests, Syriana demands several viewings if you are the sort who wants to understand everything. The film certainly does generate debate, but the debate seems to take the form that could easily follow a Robert Ludlum whodunit.

Of course in giving us this complexity, the filmmakers were only trying to do justice to what is in fact a complicated and inter-connected world. Yet the more insidious problem with the film is that politics – and particularly American politics – gets very little airtime. In comparison with Connex and Killen (the two oil companies hoping to merge) and Sloan-Whiting (the law firm performing the due diligence for the merger), the Department of Justice and the ‘Committee to Liberate Iran’ are mere sideshows. Even the CIA is portrayed as a relatively autonomous government agency, its links to authorities that are accountable to the American people remaining relatively obscure. Politics, as portrayed by Syriana, is an entirely elite-driven, specialist game in which there simply are no access points for ordinary people. Audiences watching this film could be forgiven for forgetting that there might be ways to hold power to account for outcomes such as those depicted in Syriana – and not simply in the meta-whistle blowing fashion of a Hollywood film made after the fact.

Perhaps the makers of Syriana did in fact want to make a cynical statement about US politics as an arena closed off to democratic participation. Yet, curiously, they seem to expect it to have a politicising impact on its viewers. The film is co-produced by Participant Productions, a company that ‘believes in the power of media to create great social change’, and whose goal, as proclaimed by its website, ‘is to deliver compelling entertainment that will inspire audiences to get involved in the issues that affect us all.’ Courtesy Participant Productions, Syriana is linked to a campaign called ‘Oil Change’, which among other things, urges participants to lobby the US Congress and executives of automobile companies (!) to reduce dependence on oil. These are highly worthwhile endeavours - but it is difficult to see how a film like Syriana that seems to accord so little agency to the US political process, can inspire people to invest time and energy in it.

There are two other ways in which politics is restricted in this film. First, the motivations of virtually all the characters are materialist. Lack of economic opportunity motivates Pakistani immigrant labour to serve themselves up as jehadi cannon fodder; material interest is the universal lingua franca in Washington, D.C. (there is space for Cheney and Rumsfeld in this story, but not for Wolfowitz, Kagan, Kristol or Pearle); and even the ‘progressiveness’ of the Emir-in-waiting is articulated primarily in the form of his support for liberal capitalism and the efficient allocation of resources. There is little space in this story for the independent force of ideas and ideology, religion or culture. On the one hand, this might be seen as a progressive move (no ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are all basically the same, driven by the same motivations). But it does make for a very simple world indeed – and not one that seems at all persuasive to me.

Second, politics seems to drop off our radar because none of the constituencies on whom political bads are externalised in the plot (the politically disenfranchised population of the Emirate, the American people who will think they're paying lower gas bills but forget that in reality they're paying through their noses via military expenditure and the soon-to-be-felt effects of corporate collusion, price fixing, etc.) - none of these constituencies are dramatised in the film. They cannot be objects of empathy that will give shape, meaning and a point to our outrage because they do not even figure, except as abstractions. Thus we can only feel compassion in little unconnected doses - for the woman who loses her child, the man who might have been a better ruler, the secret agent who is tortured - and of course a massive sense of impotence in the face of a structure of incentives that we simply cannot change.

This suggests to me that Syriana founders on the reef of what social scientists would call the structure-agency problem. It is very often the case that the things that bother us about the way the world works are the consequence of micro-level decisions taken by vast numbers of actors. Syriana is a valiant and creditable effort to represent this complexity. It does so by distributing agency in such a way that there are not only no clear heroes or villains, but also no access points for political accountability and change. The result is a gripping, but bewildering and politically enervating film.

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