Friday, December 09, 2005

Syriana: Movie Review

Something that excited me about starting my own blog is the chance to post series. Links for Kinks will be coming up soon and now I'm starting a new series for movie reviews, where I'll be reviewing new and old, good and bad- so check back often.

First let me say that because of all the hype surrounding Narnia this weekend and the ensuing crowds/stress that theater employees had to deal with, Katie and I managed to slip into Syriana for free because no one was there to take our tickets. Too bad I already paid for the tickets anyway. Well, looks like we'll just have to try to use them in the future for a free screening of another movie.

That is the only positive thing I can say about Narnia. Even though I didn't see it, I know people who did and I know the gist of what they will be seeing. Now don't get me wrong here, I love taking in an easy to digest movie every now and then just as much as the next guy, but I oppose doing so when there are better choices in theaters. Every time we fork over 8 bucks (5 bucks for those senior citizens amongst us), we make a conscious decision as to what we are viewing (just like when we eat). We can consume unhealthy crap that has little or no redeeming social commentary, or we can choose something that might inspire us to make a difference in the world. Unfortunately for us, the latter movies generally do not gross well at the box office, so they are few and far between. In addition, many of these movies aren't educating a whole new audience. They are mostly preaching to the choir. To prove my point, try to name 10 conservative friends that saw any Michael Moore movie or 10 Walmart shoppers who saw Robert Greenwald's documentary. You probably can't do it.

Which gets me to Syriana.

Proponents of our "liberal media" have shed light on its trend to criticize government missteps. Dissenting opinion is becoming more and more acceptable, maybe not quite patriotic, but acceptable nonetheless. And thanks to Washington heavyweights like Tom Delay, Bill Frist, Scooter Libby, Duke Cunningham, and the bulk of the Bush administration for that matter, people who go see Syriana will probably already know that our government is corrupt. But what you don't see on The Daily Show, CNN, MSNBC, and other user-friendly commentary shows is what you do see in Syriana. Director Stephen Gaghan's goal with Syriana is to start that creative thought process. To inspire you to learn more about global history- past and present. And most importantly- to mobilize a massive movement- that (hopefully) will result in weakening the US dependency on oil.

Most people know Stephen Gaghan from his work on Traffic, which earned him the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. And while many comparisons can be drawn between the two movies, including the interplay of multiple storylines and the fact that both address larger geopolitical issues, the differences are what stood out most in my head. Gone are the color-coded storylines, gone are the easier to follow plot lines, gone is the individualized character detail. It was important for Gaghan to be able to paint minimalist characterizations of the leads in Syriana, because he wasn't following a break-down of one particular American or Middle Eastern family, he was following the break-down of something much larger- the infrastructure of ethics and morals that he believes modern-day society should be governed with. It is this clash between morality and reality that George Clooney's character is struggling with.

Loosely based on See No Evil, a true story by former CIA operative Robert Baer, Syriana begins with a chilling opening sequence in which a crowd of non-descript middle eastern men push and shove each other, desperately attempting to board a lone bus that appears to be in the middle of nowhere, perhaps symbolizing the ensuing power struggle in a region that Americans view as being isolated, but no doubt alluding to how the Western world views the Middle East. Backed by a quiet score, the opening credits reveal only the names of the production company, distributor, and title, and not the star-studded cast- a deliberate effort by Gaghan to differentiate Syriana from your average Hollywood fare.

Then out of nowhere, a shady night club in Tehran blaring an old Redman song offers the audience a much needed juxtaposition, setting the stage for how Gaghan will depict present day Iran, which he attempts to do as historically accurate as possible. Even a reference to one of my favorite childhood shows, My Two Dads, adds detail to a culture that finds itself often demonizing the West, yet actively consuming (and being force-fed in some instances) Americana. Speaking of which, Gaghan's symbolic, and sometimes not-so-subtle, allusions to Westernization/modernization are some of my favorite parts of the movie- a chat between Bob Barnes (George Clooney) and his CIA superior (Tom McCarthy) about the inefficiencies of bureaucracies and the need for privatization in an IKEA parking lot, the Woodman family sitting down to eat a vegan breakfast (not necessarily portrayed in the best light- but acknowledged nonetheless) in the lush decor of their house in Geneva, suburban cookie-cutter homes so new that they don't have grass and complete with minivans in the driveways, a movie theater (looks like Regal Cinemas) so standardized that it could've been the one I watched Syriana in.

But it wasn't Gaghan's handling of Westernization that impressed me the most. Instead, I appreciated how he dealt with the ambiguous oil-producing Persian Gulf country that hosts much of the film's action. In this post 9/11 country where Americans harbor so much fear of anything foreign (especially Arabic), filmmakers often find themselves walking a fine-line between accurately portraying other cultures and actively stereotyping them. Gaghan alludes to this in a wonderful scene in which Julie (Amanda Peet) comments to her husband (Matt Damon) that "Arabs are very family oriented as a people." She then pauses and asks, "Is that rascist?"

Still, some of the most powerful scenes derive not from what Gaghan does, but rather what he doesn't do.
(The following isn't a spoiler- it is described in the synopsis). When one of the Woodman sons tragically drowns, the cinematography and camera work (that foreshadow what will happen) lend so much to this scene that it is easily supposed to be one of the most dramatic of the movie. Amanda Peet's stellar performance in this scene is the best I've ever seen from her. And yet as I watched this scene and looked around at the audience, I didn't hear a single sniffle. I didn't see one hand reaching up to wipe tears away. It is one of the most bleak, melancholic
parts of the film, yet it didn't evoke a single tear from this audience. Sounds illogical. But if a single audience member was emotionally distraught by this scene, they would be missing the point of the movie. Gaghan wants audiences to empathize with the greater despondency of the film- the loss of humanity, the loss of righteousness, the loss of civility, not the trivial loss of one family's child.

I was very impressed with how Gaghan worked religion into Syriana. It almost seems like he was reading the same book as me (Sam Harris' The End of Faith- religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason) while he wrote this movie. In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie in which a Muslim cleric lectures his congregation about the evils of the West, Gaghan shows that RELIGION, not politics, is at the heart of all conflict. Gaghan boldly tackles Islamic and Christian belief head-on, without patronizing or disrespecting either. In fact, from what I know about Islam, he does an accurate job of portraying the courageousness and righteousness that Islamic belief values. The fundamentalist Muslims in the movie aren't portrayed as scary or demented, they are portrayed accurately as a smart group of incorrupted people who strive to hold conviction and ambition- to spread their true faith, in a world overcome with the evil desire to separate church and state. And while the film's main focus is on the geopolitical role America plays in the blood-for-oil war, I'm so glad to see Gaghan at least acknowledging the huge impact that religious belief, not just fundamental but moderate as well, has on conflict.

The performances in Syriana are some of the best I've seen this year. Clooney is on top of his game. Damon delivers no surprises with an equally stunning performance. The very necessary stoic performance of Jeffrey Wright (Broken Flowers, Shaft) was top notch as usual. I for one am just happy to see him finally doing a role that doesn't demand a stereotypical Latino accent. I thought Amanda Peet had the breakout role of the movie, displaying some major acting chops that have been hidden behind scene stealers like Will Ferrell and Ashton Kutcher in her previous movies.
In my humble opinion, the cinematography and score alone are worth the 8 bucks. Both are underplayed (which I think was an excellent decision) so as not to take away from the gravity of the film's subject matter.
The score is so quiet, so powerful (and sometimes absent altogether) that if you listen closely you can hear the film projector spinning. Yet in these same silent parts, the film is still so loud that you can hear your head spinning.



Blogger bside said...

hey patrick...i was admiring your blog site thing but i did want to comment about something in your movie review. i don't think its fair to suggest finding 10 conservative friends who have seen a michael moore movie anything of value...not because they are conservative...but because 10 friends in general is a shitload...i'm still at 4 1/2 personally. futhermore...would people like us really have any conservative friends?

2:17 AM, December 11, 2005

Blogger the great waldo pepper said...

i understand what you're saying... and while the majority of my friends are liberal, i do have several conservative and "moderate" (which is another way of saying one of two things: "i don't know much about politics" or "i don't want to alienate anybody") friends. maybe I should've applied the michael moore statement to everyone. personally, i respect the opinions of my truly conservative friends 100 times more than I do the opinions of my friends who are apathetic to politics or tag themselves "liberal" on their facebook page but don't vote or couldn't tell you the difference between condi rice and donald rumsfeld. it's THOSE people that really need to be watching michael moore or syriana.

12:38 PM, December 11, 2005

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i just don't get it. while you have some great things to say, you're stuck on this counfounding tendency to underscore the dichotomy of politics through the lens which you perceive things. let's explore what i mean: "moderate" ( another way of saying one of two things: "i don't know much about politics" or "i don't want to alienate anybody").

really. what is it about modern liberals that automatically makes you fall back on the "us and them" paradigm? i personally don't consider myself a moderate or a liberal or a conversative or a republican or a democrat. but how can you label moderates automatically as ignorant about politics? after all, it's the moderates that get end up getting elected. most politicians who want to be congressman or prez identify themselves as such, and they're the ones at the helm of the country (regardless of how they truly feel they do this... look at hillary clinton's new public image...) for better or worse. does that imply they know nothing about politics? also, the country we live in today was founded on moderation and compromise (2 house legislature, 3/5ths compromise).
finally, what irks me the most about your post is the fact that you cite michael moore as someone people need to watch. come ON mr. pepper. while i'll concede that Bowling for Columbine made some fine points and was overall a good documentary on the state of american society, farenheight 9/11 (to which you're juxtaposing Syriana as something "close-minded" people need to see) was crap. crap, crap, crap. haven't you read the 9/11 commission? half of this guy's claims were discredited by the report, and the other half were so skewed, so outlandish, that only a liberal sharing the same ideals and perspective could not bring themselves to see through it. no one should take stock on a film based around lies and distortion. by the way, great post on china's execution of the protestors.
looking forward to what you've got to say about all this.

1:12 PM, December 19, 2005

Blogger the great waldo pepper said...

dear anonymous blogger,
first, thank you very much for your post. it is greatly appreciated.
now let me try to defend my argument. i think you might be missing the boat on what i was trying to say. my main concern with Syriana is that it is preaching to the choir, and it upsets me that nobody but the choir will see it (for the most part). as for the michael moore part, of course he's biased, but he doesn't get paid the big bucks to be fair and balanced (come on, he's not fox news). he's a good filmmaker. and that's what he gets paid the big bucks to do. make good films that people leave the theater thinking about. people who don't otherwise associate themselves with politics should see his movies, yes they need to take them with a grain of salt, but his movies lay the foundation for what people need in their political lives- question.
as for the moderate comment- it was directed at the facebook (online college community) crowd, not so much at Capitol Hill. to illustrate my problem with college moderates, let me quote part of the description of the mary washington moderates group: "I'm tired of being on the side who's either making all the mistakes or whining like pussies." i don't think i need to be any clearer here. if you'll allow me to generalize here, most college moderates aren't in the middle because they've examined all issues in depth and have come to the consensus that they belong in the middle. no, they are in the middle because they either HAVEN'T examined the issues in depth, HAVEN'T examined their own ideals in depth, or don't want to offend the vast number of people in their social network.
now we're onto Capitol Hill. if you really believe Hillary Clinton is a moderate, you must not know her history too well. how could a politically conscious woman who, fresh out of law school, worked for a congressional committee to help kick tricky dick out of office go onto be a "moderate" Senator years later? I'll tell you how. SHE'S A SMART POLITICIAN. any good politician (or college student) knows that to be the most well-liked you must appease as many people as possible.
so in closing, do i see hillary clinton and the rest of the Washington moderates as evil or unkowledgeable? no. i don't ascribe to the dichotomization of politics that you suggest i do. but i AM realistic. if you'll allow me one more generalization, most political moderates are hiding something that the rest of us aren't seeing.

p.s.- have you seen Syriana yet?

2:39 PM, December 19, 2005

Anonymous Anonymous said...

first off, no i haven't seen syriana. but i want to... it looks good. sorry, my post had relatively little to do with the movie. your point about hillary though...

i know her history, not too well, but well enough to notice the GLARING ABOUT-FACE she has recently undertaken. it highlights my point about moderates. as both of us suggested before, you have to be somewhere near the center if you want to appeal to a broad enough group to get yourself elected. i get why it's smart politics... but i'm hesitant to label it as such. more like stupid voters, vaguely aware the wool has been pulled over their eyes, or too stubborn to care. i suppose it's merely another indicator of the sad state of the average american voter and politician. in fact, i'm watching hillary on FOX news right now. she's on patrol in New Orleans discussing the situation. she's heartbroken over FEMA's failure, and has said "crony" about 10 times. it's just so glaringly predictable it's insulting.
now onto the average mary wash college kid. first off, most of the people on facebook label themselves as "liberal" or "very liberal", but i think there are just as many kids who label themselves as such who don't know shit about politics (like you said) as there are moderates in the same boat (like you said). in fact, i think "liberal" is an easier descriptive label to adopt than moderate. if someone is moderate you can't be sure where they stand on every issue (and just as likely neither do they). if you label yourself as liberal there's less potential variation there from party lines. however, i respect anyone with the know-how to defend their argument. i can't stand groundless debate. enter your allusion to the mary wash moderate slogan... most importantly, who really CARES about the average mary wash student in the great scheme of things... outside of the Bullet (gag)? i agree mary wash moderates aren't representative of moderates in general. from the sound of it, the whole facebook group sounds like a joke. i'd like to reiterate that i hate trying to describe someone's politcal ideology based on one word... i don't think something as important as the values and beliefs that sculpt our INDIVIDUAL political stances should be made to fit into someone else's damned spectrum. the problem there is that a spectrum going from left to right is only 2-d. it's like the original mario. there's more than left and right. there's forward and back and up and down too. the z axis, baby.
i do respect your words mr. pepper, which is probably why i'm sitting here at midnight typing. you obviously command the knowledge to defend your beliefs. it's funny (or is it depressing?) how few people can really do that. but i'm sorry. michael moore, no. no. steven speilberg is a good filmmaker, but he doesn't pretend to make you think his works of fiction are non-fiction. he wants to make you think, yes, but he doesn't try pass his word as truth. doesn't michael moore claim that 9/11, a "documentary" of far-fetched conjecture is true? i watched an interview with him on conan once long ago, just before farenheight 9/11 came out. he was making the same claims then he did in the movie. and he was doing it with a completely straight face. so if he doesn't believe what he's saying, how is he not guilty of slander, and why won't he admit it? relying on dishonesty as a vessel for inflection is just... disconcerting i suppose.
re-reading this and your latest post i've realized we agree on almost every point. here are my questions for you, pepper. let's throw farenheight 9/11 and syriana out the window (now, i haven't seen syriana and am not saying it's trash like i think 9/11 is). how do you get people to think about issues from an objective perspective without subjecting them to ultra-biased perspectives? is there even such a think as objectivity? above all else, how do people like us shatter the complacency of people like mary wash moderates that allow people like W or Hillary to be elected? personally, i'm somewhat disillusioned. i'm reading lots of kerouac and ginsberg and thompson... not much comfort there. just curious as to your thoughts on the subject. hope this disjointed tangent isn't too dull for you, but man, where do we turn?

11:36 PM, December 19, 2005

Blogger the great waldo pepper said...

excellent question. where DO we turn? from my experience, i've come to realize a few things about today's youth and politics. let me try to illustrate this with a metaphor about driving. when we're young (under 15), our parents drive us around everywhere. most of us sit in the passanger seat and pay little attention to the rules of the road, the directions our parents are taking, what shortcuts might be out there, etc. a very small percentage will ask our parents about where we're going and how we're getting there, god forbid question their choice of routes. an even smaller percentage will venture out on our own with our bikes and try to find easier or quicker ways of getting places. everything changes when we turn 16. we are thrust into the drivers seat. for those kids who noted how our parents got where they did, they'll have no problems getting around. the kids who found their own routes will do even better. but for the large majority of new drivers, they will be lost. some of them might turn to mapquest. most of them will call their parents and ask them what exit to take, what roads to find. once they've done the routine enough, they'll be able to go with the flow smoothly, following every major highway and exit that their parents told them to take during that first month of learning how to drive. eventually, their driving patterns will become so routine that they will be mindless. without having to think at all, they'll be able to start their car, follow the flow of traffic, and end up at their destination. in effect, they will be chaufurred around by the directions of their parents.

some of my best friends are still being chaufurred around. they don't need to keep up with politics (they're not paying taxes, they're not being drafted). regardless of how important they think politics is (some of them even watch CNN!), they still don't vote. even after i shove a voter registration form down their throat, they won't fill it out. too much work. one vote doesn't really make a difference. even the ones who are registered don't always vote (the lines were too long)!!!!

at this stage in their lives, there is nothing you or I could do to change their minds. they have other things that matter more than politics (getting good grades, getting laid, making money, making music, etc.). this is the youth apathy problem. eventually, they will graduate, get laid, settle down, whatever, and politics will become more and more important. they'll figure out that the jobs they are working, the schools they took classes from, the health care their parents are complaining about ARE ALL CONTROLLED BY POLITICS! and they'll care. just like that. they will have turned 16 years old. just like that.

in the meantime, what can you and I do? THIS! engaging in conversation, starting blogs, making our friends go see Syriana, or at least making them watch the god damn daily show as slanted as it is, just once in awhile. balance it out by watching a little tucker carlson. whatever it takes to spark their interest in something that really matters.

the only thing you and I can do is be heard.

4:08 PM, December 20, 2005

Blogger kEviNg1984 said...

So what about us people who tag themselves liberals but are up to date with politics and give a shit about how the world. Our our opinions worth 1000x more than the conservative friends? Just wondering.....

5:41 PM, January 17, 2006


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