Monday, November 13, 2017

I drink your milkshake


If it is not the best film about America in the Mideast, then maybe it's just because I haven't seen enough of that sourpussed breed to make the claim.  However, I will say this with unalloyed confidence: it's got the best poster, by far.

Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan (based on the book See No Evil by Robert Baer)
With George Clooney (Bob Barnes), Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir Al-Subaai), Matt Damon (Bryan Woodman), Amanda Peet (Julie Woodman), William Hurt (Stan), Mark Strong (Mussawi), Akbar Kusha (Prince Meshal Al-Subaai), Jeffrey Wright (Bennett Holiday), Tim Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton), Chris Cooper (Jimmy Pope), and Christopher Plummer (Dean Whiting)

Spoiler alert: moderate

As I understand it, Soderbergh did the medium few favors when he codified a new genre with Traffic back in 2000.  ("New," anyway, in the sense that Robert Altman never spawned any great number of imitators in his own day.) Traffic's success paved the way for its brand of social issues drama, the kind of film that Roger Ebert would soon collectively label "hyperlink cinema."  Good manners, of course, demand I mention that Ebert only popularized the phrase.  It was coined by Alissa Quart, who used it more as a description of form than of content.

Either way, one surmises that the Internet was newer then, and inspired more wonder; and one further imagines Ebert didn't mean to bowlderize the term and make it synonymous with "ensemble films that poked a stick at the important topics of the day."  Nevertheless, this would all be right around the same time he gave Crash, Traffic's least-beloved bastard child, a sterling four-star review, thereby helping it attain the pinnacle of middlebrow Hollywood prestige for about six months, along with the gold statue to prove it.  And I'll cop to it: I've never seen Crash.  Hell, maybe I'd even like it.  I like all sorts of things most people hate.  But I do still tend to doubt it, and in any event, it's currently the public's pick for the least-deserving Oscar win of—well, who knows, maybe just our lifetimes, maybe of all time.  But the form's combination of ensemble casts, multi-threaded storylines, and social engagement managed to creep along, and you still see the things pop up from time to time.

The year 2005 offered another entry into this microcanon, however, and it's certainly one of its better offerings.  It had the advantage of being the passion project of Traffic's other author, Stephen Gaghan, who had, at some point, read a book (specifically, Robert Baer's memoir of the CIA, See No Evil). Gaghan combined what he'd read with a fictionalizing zeal and the great insight he had gleaned during the drafting of Traffic. It was an insight which Gaghan, in contemporary interviews, described thus: "Like, dude, America is addicted to oil like people get addicted to drugs."

The movie is smarter than this makes it sound.  (Gaghan went on to explain "they" had a "car that runs on water.")

Syriana's funny, though.  It was released to generally rapturous reviews (Ebert four-starred this one too, natch), and even a pretty decent box office showing—surprising business, frankly, for a movie that was this transparently intended to make its audience 1)think about stuff and 2)feel bad about it.  (It was even marketed that way!)  And then... that was that.  For a movie that managed to snatch at least a few hairs off the zeitgeist's head, just as the propriety and efficacy of the American imperial project in the Middle East had begun to fade like a child's faith in Santa Claus, Syriana had a shockingly short shelf life.  Honestly, I can't remember the last time someone mentioned it.

Of course, the reason it wound up half-forgotten is not exactly hard to identify: Syriana is famously boring.  It's about the only thing it's still famous for.  That's in large part thanks to what the majority of its viewers have perceived as one obnoxiously obfuscatory approach toward telling its quartet of interconnected tales of oil and power.  The perception, I'll admit, is frankly at least half-true: believe it or not, Syriana actually is a startlingly tight motion picture, considering the genre—for hardly a frame of it is wasted, almost everything it does matters, and (above all) every last thing it does makes sense—but it's about as clear as a brick wall in getting this across to the audience, adamantine in its absolute refusal to hold your hand or explain its plot, and rewarding multiple viewings chiefly in the sense that the more you watch it, the more you understand not merely why characters are acting in a certain way at any given moment, but even what it is they're doing.

As such, you can see why it might be easier to allude to Syriana's multifarious stories, rather than drill down into the details.  Even so, we'll try to be complete.

The important thing to remember is that everybody in the whole wide world sucks. 

Syriana centers around the ramifications of a pair of oil deals of staggering proportions: petro-giant Connex has just gotten kicked out of an unnamed emirate in the Persian Gulf in favor of a Chinese consortium, and as a result has moved its eyes eastward, deciding to swallow up a smaller oil company, Killen (slightly annoyingly pronounced "Killeen"), that's somehow managed to get itself a monopoly on the fields in Kazakhstan.  It's a complex thicket of legalese, thorny with antitrust issues and FCPA violations.  (That I am presently working with FCPA issues myself surely does not make it any more inherently interesting.  In fact, I just made myself laugh at the thought.)  However, this thicket is being navigated with a semblance of grace by the ambitious attorney tasked with the diligence, Bennett Holiday.

In the meantime, however, this means that all of Connex' contract workers in the emirate—a gaggle of Pakistanis and other migrants—are thrown out of a job.  Their number includes Wasim, an impressionable youth who knows nothing about nothing except that the local Islamic school will feed him, teach him Arabic, and maybe not treat him like a complete piece of disposable shit, as Connex (and the emirate's security forces) have tended to do his whole life.

Across the Gulf, there's Bob Barnes, a CIA man, long in both experience and beard.  Here in Iran, he's making phony arms deals on behalf of the United States, but his mission goes slightly awry: while he does succeed in killing his Iranian targets, one of the missiles he intended to blow up actually gets diverted to a certain blue-eyed Egyptian, and we'll meet him again a little bit later on—missile in tow—when he hops the water and lands in the emirate, teaching Wasim about the finer points of Islam, and blowing things up in the name of Islam.

Perhaps most importantly of all, though, the emirate is just as unstable at the top as it is at the bottom, for the emir is old and tired, and preparing to abdicate in favor of one or the other of his favorite sons: on one side, there's Prince Meshal, a human garbage pile who's never done anything in his life besides spend money, and on the other, there's Prince Nasir, who is played by an actor from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and is therefore more important than anybody else even before we get a look at his political program, which, fortuitously, actually turns out to be everything we've always said we wanted out of a Muslim leader.

Why, he even makes friends with Matt Damon.

But Nasir's ideology is combined with a streak of economic independence that soon puts the reformist prince in harm's way; and Bob, half-disgraced by the Iranian job, is given a chance to set things right with the Company by assassinating the one halfway-decent leader in the whole Arabian peninsula.  This goes even less well than the mission in Iran, and hopefully Bob wasn't too attached to his fingernails.

You can see what I mean about it being fucking hard to summarize.  I can't say, for certain, that what I wrote even comes off as clearly as the movie itself.  Syriana's confusion works for it, however.  Its complexity is one of its finer points: it is a 130 minute-long sensation of descending deep into the murk of American foreign policy in a multipolar world defined by obscure factions, crazy terrorism, and enormous sums of money.  On this count, it is ably assisted indeed by both Roger Elswit's desaturated cinematography and Alexandre Desplat's unnerving tuneless thrum of a score.  (The former is slightly too "fauxcumentary" in its compositions, but it was 2005, after all—despite the occasional shaky handheld, though, Elswit wasn't about to let beautiful location shooting go to waste.  Meanwhile, the latter is marked only once by an overt "welcome to the creepy orient!" theme, but it certainly plays in practice, against Bob's frightening ride through Hezbollah-controlled Beirut.)

That's Syriana in a nutshell, though: why the heck are they in Beirut?  But if it's confusing, I do think it's supposed to be.

It is, in a sense, dry homework: the film is about what it says it's about, and there's no getting around the fact that most of its characters exist to make some point or another about capitalism, or imperialism, or Islamism, or whatever.  It plays fair, though, and its characters are allowed, also, to represent themselves: Nasir's disgust is as much for his brother as his country's downward spiral; Bob breaks down quietly and professionally as he belatedly realizes what a blunt instrument of policy he's always been; Wasim's (uncannily homosocial, and even faintly homoerotic) journey towards radicalization gets the shortest shrift, but you see, in fragments, why he chooses it, and that he's just a sexually and economically frustrated manchild who simply can't get his head around the idea of a world with any better options.

The single best moment of the film is basically Stephen Gaghan speaking directly through two men, Nasir and Damon's cosmopolitan financier, Bryan Woodman.  Gaghan deploys his characters as mouthpieces, in order to bitch about how backwards and awful Nasir's "emirate" (i.e., the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Kuwait) actually is, little more than the endless field of sand they're presently standing in, which had been wandered by tribesmen for centuries until somebody found oil in it, whereupon the stupidest and most venal possible leaders of the country were made its kings at the whim of a bunch of thirsty foreigners, whose patently obvious design was to steal their wealth out from under them while they were kept busy, almost-literally setting all their newfound money on fire.  It's a powerful moment, because it's, well, true.  The Arabian kingdoms are all phony countries that arguably don't even deserve to exist, and have made very little effort to prove otherwise.  It's worth mentioning that the reason I remembered Syriana now, of all times, is that it is literally playing out right this second in real life, in Saudi Arabia, with the names and some of the roles changed—Jared Kushner is a terrible, mirror-universe Matt Damon—but even then, the script hasn't been altered that much.  It's the moment that you understand that Syriana is Gaghan's level-best attempt to understand what's happened to bring us to this point, in a remarkably even-handed way that doesn't let anyone off the hook for the world they've made.  (It's perhaps even more remarkable still that this movie doesn't mention 9/11 once, or, if it did, I missed it all four times I've seen it.)

But it's the best moment because it draws in its melodrama to humanize its point: the only reason Woodman's even here to be listened to is because the emir accidentally electrocuted his kid at a party, and Woodman's accepted the prince's invitation to receive his blood money, in the form of a cherry contract for Woodman's firm.  This bitterness (and the self-loathing over using his dead child as a bargaining chip, which Damon sublimates into Woodman's wholehearted embrace of Nasir's bid for the throne) animates this scene far out of the proportion to its talky geopolitical significance.  "How much for my other kid?"  It could've come off as a white man's angry condescension, too.  It even does.  But Alex Siddig is a more-than-credible opponent: it's the way he says "Tell me something I don't already know."  And, yes, the way he pissily remarks, "I'll give you $100 million for the other kid."

Basically, Gaghan's dusty poli-sci exercise is far livelier than it has any right to be, while still achieving its core mission of raging against the internal combustion machine.  It's exceedingly well-acted, from George Clooney's in-your-face physical transformation (and his subtle coming-apart as things go south), to Jeffrey Wright's quietly-dangerous doc reviewer, on down to the Pakistani migrant kids who most clearly amongst the cast exist purely to serve as Gaghan's messengers, but who still come off as people anyway.

But forget the fine acting he gets out of his giant cast, and the well-chosen imagery of oil infrastructure and opulence contrasted with slave labor camps and empty deserts; considering we're talking about a sophomore director who faded into near-obscurity after this very picture, maybe you wouldn't expect that Gaghan does everything he needs to do to make a masterpiece.  But he does: Syriana's not just an op-ed with mood.  It actually surprises me that people do find it boring, despite its complexity and obtuseness: it wears the shape of a grand paranoid thriller.  (Lord, its very opening minutes offer up my favorite "cool guys don't look at explosions" scene of all time.)  But that thriller does dovetail perfectly with the mean-minded realpolitik swirling across our four reference frames.  One is therefore intrigued to know what the fifth story might have entailed—filmed, but never-seen, even on trusty blu-ray.  Apparently it involved Michelle Monaghan as the bride of an Arab aristocrat.

One more fish in the kettle, probably.  It is indeed the case that the loose ends don't tie together entirely neatly.  But maybe that's Gaghan's nod toward life: as much as I enjoy Wright's legal wrangle in D.C., and as much as it gives a context to the struggles of the little people, it is hard to say that it was ever a plot necessity.  It's scarcely even a dramatic necessity.  (I aver, however, that it is something of a textural necessity.)  Regardless, the other three stories merge far more cleanly.  It's here that everything Gaghan's done with his actors and with his thriller machinations pays off—a cross-cut finale that combines Hitchcockian "show-the-bomb" suspense with a touch of beautiful Malickian pastorialism (not to mention a heavy dollop of political irony), and then ends with the kind of twist-the-knife tragedy built to remind you that while Americans might have many things to be genuinely proud of, the things we've done to the Middle East don't feature too heavily on the list of our greatest hits.  The fate of Nasir and Bob, united again, sticks with you, simply because it's just so damned unfair.  But as the film closes out (and it should have ended on that cut to white, without another single frame prior to the credits, but nothing's perfect), we're reminded that this world is strange and fragile, and things spiral out of the control so easily.  A company closed its plant, just for a few weeks; a worker went out to make his own way in the world, only to be led astray; a disaster of Biblical proportions followed on.  It was always avoidable.  And then, somehow, it became inevitable.

Score:  10/10

No comments:

Post a Comment