Monday, July 23, 2012

Cinema 2005: Cultures collide and the powerful survive

There is a point in "Syriana" when Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) clearly abandons “family values” in favor of striking a Faustian bargain with an Arab prince consumed by ideas of nation building. In this far-ranging movie, inspired by Robert Baer’s novel “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War On Terrorism,” men and women sell out for a variety of passions and causes. Some men pray to Allah, others to the Almighty Dollar. Idealists, on the other hand, become grease for the wheels of a progress built on crimes. The message is bleak, but the film doesn’t want us to give up.

Despite a high-level corporate investigation, CIA dirty tricks, a jihadist training camp, bombs, missiles, guns and torture, “Syriana” is more of a studied exposition than a suspenseful thriller. It may be hard at first to connect the dots, as director/screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (“Traffic”) interweaves the stories of a handful of disparate characters who jet around the globe to seal deals or spy. But in fact, the movie is carefully bringing its provincial American audience up to speed. We are reminded of old truths, such as our robber baron past, and shown changing paradigms we might have overlooked in the myopic pursuit of the American dream, e.g., the modernity and wealth of the Muslim world, symbolized by skyscrapers in the desert. We are shown some of the beauty of Southwest Asia: a traditional meal—family-style, the rooftops of Tehran, and seaside Beirut, once known as “the Paris of the Mideast.”

We can easily identify with the urban lifestyle, but may be put off by the languages spoken. As a rule, American movie-goers are not used to hearing foreign languages in Hollywood films, but the insistence in this film of so much spoken Arabic makes an important point, namely, that the convergence of cultures is inevitable. Subtitles keep us in the loop during scenes where Arabic is spoken extensively, but even the most monolingual American will be pleased to recognize certain words: kabob, Koran and remote.

Among others, the film tracks Pakistani guest workers in an Arab emirate who suddenly lose their jobs due to a corporate takeover by an American oil company. One young Pakistani is advised to learn Arabic if he wants to stay and work in the emirate. Many join a Muslim camp, where the men play soccer and discuss Spiderman when they are not at prayer together. The most vulnerable among them are recruited by Islamist terrorists. While the film humanizes the terrorist’s apprentices, it also attempts to depict their wrongheaded sincerity and the complexity of their situation.

Much has been made about Clooney gaining 35 pounds for his role as Bob, a bewhiskered, over-the-hill CIA agent. Clooney himself has been quoted as saying he regrets it. However, given the otherwise dashing persona he brings with him to the screen, the beard and extra pounds figure as important reminders that Clooney is playing a man past his prime. At one point, as Bob is digging for answers regarding an assignment, he remarks that there was a time when he “wouldn't have needed to know why?" The young people depicted in this film are much more willing to do the bidding of others. But Bob is a veteran agent, who epitomizes an earlier era when there was still “honor among thieves.”

His current handlers sadly neglect human intelligence, in the broadest sense, in favor of high technology, for the very reason that technology can’t think for itself. In one scene, men in suits administer assassination from halfway around the world, watching their handiwork via satellite. You sense they would high five each other if lower pay-grades, the subordinates who actually push the buttons that launch the missiles, weren’t watching. Are these suits any less sociopathic than a tong-wielding torturer in Lebanon? This is the type of question “Syriana” raises, and is why the movie is worth seeing.

While the Woodmans relax at the emir's palatial resort in the south of Spain, they wonder briefly if it's racist to generalize about Arabs being family-oriented. In the midst of the opulence of extreme wealth, this cosmopolitan American couple fails to consider the real question: What happens at some future crunch-time if those Arabs put the welfare of their families ahead of ours in the West?

The movie’s take on government, big business and the venal men who walk in the halls of power is cynical. Big business bends nations to its will. A wounded American family (symbolic of our nation) that might have played a positive role in a multicultural world, has returned by film’s end to seek refuge within fortress U.S.A. An Arab rising star, whose progressive thinking may threaten the Mideastern status quo, has been eclipsed by the powerful in the name of self-preservation. "New king, same as the old king." أربع نجوم (Four stars)

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