Pop quiz, everybody. Question One. Who today is blowing up innocent people in an effort to thwart democracy, women’s rights and economic development in the Middle East? Easy, right? But if your answer was “fanatical Islamic terrorists,” then you’re obviously not a Hollywood producer. Now, Question Two. Knowing what we know about Hollywood, can we make a wild guess as to who a Hollywood producer might imagine was blowing up innocent people and trying to thwart democracy, women’s rights and economic development in the Middle East? Yep, this time you got it. It’s the CIA — in league, of course, with big American oil companies. To anyone not caught up in Hollywood’s curious brand of politically obtuse paranoia, the premiss of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana would be laughable, but American movie audiences, which must be the most undemanding in the world, simply take it in their stride. Well sure, they say. It’s a movie. Who else would you expect the villain to be?
It’s perfectly true that the movies occupy their own little world, one in which the only allowable villainy comes from Nazis, racists and other “prejudiced” people, the sexually repressed, sinister forces within the U.S. government and big corporations or some combination of the three. We’ve grown so used to this state of affairs that we hardly notice it anymore. In the same way, 50 or 60 years ago, hardly anybody thought it a matter of notice that the bad guys so often turned out to be Indians or Mexicans or other dark-complected peoples — except of course the members of those disfavored groups themselves. They finally found a voice with which to protest, but who’s going to speak up in favor of politicians, generals and corporate executives? Yet even if we don’t worry about offending white males in positions of power, such stereotyping can hardly be a good thing for the movies themselves. Where’s the fun in knowing already whodunnit as soon as Langley or the Pentagon flashes up on the screen? We used to want to see movies “torn from today’s headlines.” Now we’re content to stick with the familiar Hollywood paradigm of corrupt politicians and security forces that was first established more than 30 years ago. In Tinseltown, it’s always 1974, and Watergate is in full swing.
Gaghan’s movie makes a show of being fiendishly complex, but the difficulty of following its four separate plot strands is considerably mitigated by this fore-knowledge of who are the good guys and who the bad. Only the CIA man, “Bob” (George Clooney), who is dispatched to Lebanon to arrange for the assassination of the progressive Arab leader Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), presents any problem, and that only momentarily. For when he is caught and tortured by a local warlord for reasons that remain obscure, Bob becomes an embarrassment to the Agency who naturally proceed to disown him. On the outs with the CIA, he would equally naturally be expected to metamorphose from bad to good-guy, even if he weren’t George Clooney.
Of the other plot strands, one involves Matt Damon as an American oil analyst with a Zürich commodity trading firm who advises Prince Nasir that if he invests the Emirate’s oil profits in infrastructure and economic development he will be sitting pretty after the oil runs out. Obviously, nobody but an aging boy-genius of the type which has become rather a speciality of Mr Damon’s could have come up with a brilliant idea like that. The third plot involves a giant Houston-based oil company and a politicized prosecution by the Justice Department. Somebody has been bribing local officials in Kazakhstan to get the corporation drilling rights there, and the DoJ is insisting on nailing a couple of scalps to the wall. “We’re looking for the illusion of due diligence,” says young lawyer on the make Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) to the corporation’s CEO (Chris Cooper). “Two criminal prosecutions give us that illusion.”
Only in the fourth and least-developed plot-strand do we have a momentary and very unsatisfactory glance at the realities of the Middle East today. A Pakistani oil-worker (Mazhar Munir) in the Emirate run by Prince Nasir’s aged father loses his job and is subsequently inveigled into jihadism by an Arab teacher (Amr Waked). The treatment of the oil workers by the American-sponsored Emir’s police and army helps to radicalise him. This has only the loosest of connections with the other three plots. Moreover, unlike the real jihadis, this young man’s aim is not to blow up either American soldiers or local Arab civilians but an American supertanker. And having watched the wicked skullduggery engaged in by the ship’s owners, we can be sure that there are no innocents on board.
Gaghan’s film is supposed to have been “suggested by” Robert Baer’s, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism. But Baer’s book is critical of the CIA for not being more aggressive in the pursuit of Islamic terrorism, not an account of how it conspires with Big Oil to assassinate enlightened Arab leaders. In the film, the CIA/Big Oil view is not only that the aim of American diplomacy is to maximize oil profits but also that those profits will continue to be maximized “provided there is still chaos in the Middle East.” Who, outside of Hollywood or the loony left, ever believed that? And who that knew anything about the current insurgency in Iraq could continue to believe it? But then that could be one of the problems with making a film torn from the headlines of 30-odd years ago rather than today.