East Is East and...: Syriana

Syriana provides a valuable insight, one of those “Aha!” moments. Before sitting through this new film, brilliantly written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, I held the rather conventional belief that the news from the Middle East was relentlessly depressing because of the horrible events that have dominated media coverage of the region for the past 60 years. Now I realize there is something more. The news is depressing because it makes no sense. The world seems trapped in an absurdist melodrama with inevitably tragic consequences. In classic tragedy, the catastrophe in the last act leads to a purging of pity and fear. In this contemporary drama, there is no last act; one bloodletting merely raises the curtain on another act with another cast of characters waiting its turn to preen upon the blood-red stage.

Even this description is misleading. It implies a linear progression from one scene to another. In a universe that might have been designed by Beckett or Ionesco, the action doubles back on itself and the actors switch roles at whim. The experience of watching this spectacle involves entering a vortex where events, beliefs, personalities, perceptions and even morals spin out of control and form new configurations with each new twist of history. The sheer complexity of these interlocking events leaves one not only exhausted, but profoundly sad. True to the story it is trying to tell, “Syriana” creates an undulating mosaic of horrifying detail that in the end leads to no composite image, no rational conclusion, only sadness.


As the opening credits roll, the camera dwells lovingly on the desert at sunrise. A bright orange sun claws its way into the sky, while workers line up for a bus that will take them across the sand for their endless search for a day’s work. Fog or blowing sand veils the images, and the resultant blurring sets the tone of obscurity for the entire film. A title offers the single word “Teheran,” and the setting switches from workers in a desert to a fashionable bar, where dark-haired women with stylishly sophisticated clothes join unidentified men for drinks. In a maddeningly quick cut, one of the women seems to be pulling up a man’s trousers over her sleek, expensive dress. Why? Who are these people drinking and flirting as though they were in a singles bar in the West? Yet they gather in a non-Arab land where the dominant Islamic rule clearly forbids such social activities.

As the titles end, Bob Barnes (George Clooney) leaves the group and enters a mysterious storefront. He carries two surface-to-air missiles for his eager customers, but is he really an arms dealer, or is he a C.I.A. operative executing an elaborate sting, or is he a C.I.A. rogue engaged in a private transaction for his own profit? When the deal is closed, the customers reveal that they will deliver the weapons to a third party, but who? Barnes receives his money and leaves quietly, but as he enters the street a bomb destroys the building.

Without transition, we enter polished boardrooms in Houston and conference rooms in Washington. The Chinese have outbid a huge American oil company for extraction rights in an unnamed Arab kingdom, but another smaller American firm has somehow managed to gain monopoly rights in Kazakhstan. Since one company has the capital and the other the contract, the two merge to form one of the world’s largest economic entities. To protect their investments they must secure the creation and survival of friendly governments in the region, by any means necessary. The administration in Washington keeps one eye fixed clearly on domestic politics and the other eye tightly closed to legal or ethical complications.

Government agencies and corporations work well together to further their allied interests, but neither can afford to soil their own hands. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. act only in the cause of “national security” and allow, encourage and order agents like Bob Barnes to carry out operations on the fringes of the law. If something goes wrong, an individual operative is always expendable, with deniability. Corporate boards can use another tactic: they hire law firms, market analysts, security services and consultants to see that their objectives are attained. A multimillion dollar fee “for services rendered” (no further specification can be noted on a potential paper trail) seems routine. In an area of constant factional fighting, assassinations of political figures occur every day, and nobody asks questions. It’s just the way to remove obstacles. A Washington insider, Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) provides a moment of illumination when he calls this political-corporate cartel “legitimized gangsterism.”

What about the gangsters, the cunning, the unscrupulous, the naïve, the dedicated, the greedy and the hapless? Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) rules an empire of corporate lawyers who receive vast fees to protect the interests of their clients. He prunes roses in his Georgetown garden, while instructing his ambitious young colleague (Jeffrey Wright) on steps to be taken to see that the oil and the money keep flowing. He says nothing incriminating, but his facial gestures suggest that the steps might include espionage, assassination and the overthrow of foreign governments.

Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) lives with his wife, Julie (Amanda Peet), and their two small children in Geneva. His consulting firm keeps an eye (and a hand) on the financial markets for the benefit of his clients. Clearly on the rise in the world of endless petrodollars, he and his family join a lavish weekend party at an emir’s Spanish villa. The gala ends in tragedy when Woodman’s son dies in the swimming pool. The accident destroys his marriage but propels his career into the stratosphere when the guilt-ridden emir feels obliged to compensate both Woodman and the firm he represents. Julie sees the arrangement as blood money; Woodman sees it as a rare opportunity. As a family, they are gangsters and victims at the same time.

In this climate, commuting across the border between gangsterism and victimhood is commonplace. Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir) left his native Pakistan to work in the oil fields in an unnamed gulf state, but when the Chinese take over, they import their own laborers. Without a job, family, friends, money or even a visa and working knowledge of Arabic, Wasim turns to religion. A hate-filled imam explains that his troubles are due to the incursions of the West, even though in fact his problems arose with the arrival of the Chinese. It makes no difference. Any society capable of moving beyond the 15th century is “the West.” With few prospects in this life, Wasim places his hopes in the next, with the all-too-familiar consequences for dozens of innocent people.

Or are they innocent? Is anyone innocent? Have all these institutions that promise much become corrupt and destructive: government, religion, corporations—and have the ordinary people who support them and profit from them? If these organizations would survive, can they be other than corrupt?

Stephen Gaghan tells his story in fragmentary style, much like our reading of the daily papers over a period of months or years. The individual stories have only the most tangential of relationships to one another, and none reaches a satisfying resolution. Yet in a most perverse way, each is part of the same story, the same sad, sad story. Miraculously, Gaghan has compressed all this action into a film that lasts only slightly longer than two hours. We want to know more. We want to make sense out of this kaleidoscope of events and persons, but this is impossible. As is the case in life, the events themselves do not make sense.

The ensemble cast in this round robin of death creates characters that are admirable in their single-minded dedication to their goals, yet chilling in their icy disregard of human values. George Clooney’s Barnes, paunchy and graying, has seen too much treachery to expect anything else from life. He needs the rush of danger that comes from the constant threat of betrayal, much as other men need alcohol or sex or power. Christopher Plummer’s lawyer and Chris Cooper’s oil tycoon have grown comfortable with the knowledge that as predatory animals they must kill in order to survive. As the younger lawyer, Jeffrey Wright provides an intelligent vantage point for the audience. Clearly perceptive and experienced, he sees evil for what it is. Few events surprise him any more, but with the last vestiges of his humanity still intact, he clings desperately to his capacity to be revolted.

“Syriana” is a film of rare intelligence and power. It offers more than we can comfortably handle, just like the nightly news.

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