Syriana: Torturing George Clooney

Syriana: Torturing George Clooney

Good (as distinguished from mediocre) movies on DVD are remarkably satisfying because you can replay scenes and pick up tiny details. This advantage is particularly helpful in the case of the 2005 Syriana, highly praised by almost all the better critics, but extremely difficult to follow with its multiple locations, its intricate narrative twists, its stop-and-go scenes, and its enormous cast (that’s why we hadn’t gone to see it sooner). Having watched it once at a normal speed and then again with many stops and replays, I would call it one of the most morally challenging, most grown-up movies of recent years. George Clooney–what a perpetually interesting man–produced and acted. He won an Oscar for his role, but the film did not do well at the box office, largely because its subject is so dark and its plot so difficult to follow. Now is the perfect time to see it–it is ten times more relevant now, with the price of gasoline as it is and the problem of Iran growing ever more pressing.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gives the general idea: “Global oil corruption has seeped into every facet of our lives, from the collusion of White House and business interests in the Persian Gulf to the financial squeeze we all feel just pumping gas. No dry civics lesson, this fighting-mad film isn’t just hot, it’s incendiary. And no one gets off the hook. You see it with the exhilarating feeling that a movie can make a difference.” It hasn’t and won’t make a difference, given the principalities and powers that be, but at least, as Stephen Gaghan (same screenwriter as Traffic), Clooney, and their team say hopefully in an interview, it might make us reflect about what it takes to get our cars filled up–namely, “the brutality of the strategic [oil] game played on the global stage.”

When I first thought of writing about this movie I had one idea, then I developed others. The first idea has to do with the scene in which Clooney (who gained 30 pounds and grew a graying beard for his role as a CIA field agent nearing the end of his career) is gruesomely tortured by a sadistic Middle Eastern operative. I had the idea that perhaps the sight of George Clooney, instead of some sinister terrorist, being tortured might jog our collective consciences. Lack of imagination is what prevents us from rising up against state-sponsored torture: we can’t imagine that we ourselves, or any of our friends, or any good American, could ever be tortured. It’s the bad guys who get tortured.

But then I thought no, this act of imagination won’t happen, even though it should.

Another feature of the film is the fact that there aren’t any “bad guys” or “good guys.” Almost all the Americans are varying degrees of bad, actually, and the most attractive characters, two young Pakistanis who are living in a squalid compound for foreign oilfield workers, end up—convincingly–in a radical group training to be suicide bombers. Still, Clooney and Matt Damon are so well known to us, so American, that we can hardly imagine them involved in the sinister activities depicted here. “US interests in the region” sounds like an innocuous phrase, but we soon come to see how these “interests” rapidly devolve into callousness, mendacity, lies, betrayal, and murder as the oilmen throw parties for one another and praise their executives and middle managers as “the best people in the world” producing the “best possible product at the best possible prices.” Joseph Conrad’s narrator, Marlow (in Heart of Darkness) called it with high sarcasm “the merry dance of death and trade.”

The movie has a huge range. We move from Washington and Houston to Teheran and the Arab emirate called “Syriana.” We get a good look at Hezbollah ensconced in Beirut, students and teachers in a madrasa, and a very large cast of Arabs and Iranians. The subtly haunting, percussive score is unusually effective. The movie is mesmerizing even if one can’t follow it all; the general idea comes through well enough

Indeed, the relevance of Syriana grows by the day, with Sy Hersh’s article about appalling Bush administration policies re Iran in The New Yorker this very month, and Countdown (MSNBC) reporting a couple of days ago that Arabic and Farsi speakers continue to be fired for speaking up about these policies—very much like the Clooney character who also speaks these languages and is callously dumped off the CIA train. And how about this: on July 3, The New York Times reports a possibly shady deal between the Kurds and Hunt Oil of Dallas contrary to American policy in Iraq. Link to story:

I highly recommend Syriana. (It might help to read a few reviews first.)

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