December 13, 2005
I don't know if anyone does time capsules anymore, but if they do
I suggest that a DVD of the George Clooney movie ``Syriana'' be
included. I'm not sure it tells you much about today's America --
not as much as an iPod, for instance, or a clip from ``Entertainment
Tonight" -- but it sure tells you something about Hollywood
and how it never made the transition to color. When it comes to
politics, many of its people -- including movie critics -- still
see things in black and white.
impossible to summarize the plot of ``Syriana.'' Most reviewers
have called it complicated, often using the term as a compliment.
I can tell you from first-hand experience that you will never
know what's going on. It's doubtful the screenwriter-director,
Stephen Gaghan, can tell you himself. The best I can do is quote
from The New York Times review by A.O. Scott, who says
the movie is an ``intriguing narrative about oil, terrorism, money
and power.'' Scott, incidentally, loved the movie.
reason I include ``Syriana'' in my imaginary time capsule is not
its complicated plot but its simplistic politics. Again, I turn
to Scott: ``Someone is sure to complain that the world doesn't
really work the way it does in `Syriana': that oil companies,
law firms and Middle Eastern regimes are not really engaged in
semiclandistine collusion. ... OK, maybe. Call me naive -- or
paranoid, or liberal, or whatever the favored epithet is this
week -- but I'm inclined to give Mr. Gaghan the benefit of the
doubt.'' As you can see, movie critics spend a lot of time in
not be surprised to learn that the locus for all this ``oil, terrorism,
money and power'' is the United States, which is up to absolutely
no good. With the exception of the Clooney character, everyone
is corrupt, including of course, the CIA. The agency not only
sets up one of its own, Clooney, but it assassinates a perfectly
nice Middle Eastern potentate to ensure that his oil remains in
friendly hands. This sort of thing is distinctly against the law,
a true career-ender at the CIA and elsewhere, but never mind.
A movie does not have to stick to the facts.
it is going to say anything, then it ought to say something smart
and timely. But, ``Syriana's'' cynicism is out of time and place,
a homage to John le Carre, who himself is dated. To read George
Packer's ``The Assassin's Gate'' is to be reminded that the Iraq
War is not the product of oil avarice or CIA evil, but of a surfeit
of altruism, a naive compulsion to do good. That entire collection
of neo and retro conservatives -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and particularly
Wolfowitz -- made war not for oil or for empire, but to end the
horror of Saddam Hussein and, yes, reorder the Middle East.
inept. They were duplicitous. They were awesomely incompetent
and, in the case of Bush, they were monumentally ignorant and
incurious, but they did not give a damn for oil or empire. This
is why so many liberals, myself included, originally supported
the war. It engaged us emotionally. It seemed ... well, right
-- a just cause.
be nice if Hollywood understood that. It would be nice if those
who agree with Hollywood -- who think, as Gaghan does, that this
is a brave, truth-to-power movie when it is really just an outdated
cliche -- can release their fervid grip on old left bromides about
Big Oil, Big Business, Big Government and the inherent evil of
George Bush, and come up with something new and relevant. I say
that because something new and relevant is desperately needed.
Neoconservatism crashed and burned in Iraq, but liberalism never
even showed up. The left's criticism of the war from the very
start was too often a porridge of inanities about oil or empire
or Halliburton -- or isolationism by another name. It was childish
and ultimately ineffective. The war came and Bush was re-elected.
How's that for a clean whiff?
If, as Dooley
Wilson sings in ``Casablanca,'' ``a kiss is still a kiss,'' then
a movie is only a movie -- and literal truth does not matter.
``Casablanca'' itself proves the point. The plot is silly, basically
a love story superimposed on an footnote of World War II. But
it's a great movie nonetheless. ``Syriana'' is different because
it's first and foremost a political statement, a cinematic manifesto
of the tired and empty cynicism of too many on the left. ``Syriana''
is not a bad movie. It is just a better cartoon.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group