Why is it that in Hollywood movies, the Middle East is always best understood by characters that are jaded? Watching George Clooney in Stephen Gaghan’s film Syriana, that obligation is again respected. Clooney, who portrays a CIA agent and won an Oscar for his role, shuffles through the scenes comatose with cynicism, burdened by his past manipulations, buffeted, too, by the perfidy of the American government.
It’s fun, but Syriana, like its misleading title (Syria plays no role in the story), is a misleading film. It’s often an inaccurate, anachronistic compilation of tendentious postulations about oil politics in the Middle East, thrown out as complex truth to an unsuspecting audience.
In a nutshell, the main plot involves an American oil company trying to regain oil drilling rights in an unidentified Arab emirate that has just awarded those rights to a higher-bidding Chinese company. The person behind the China deal is the reformist son of the emir, who feels it only natural, given his country’s interests, to hand the contract to the higher bidder. The emir’s other son, however, a lightweight, is used by the American company to invalidate the Chinese contract in its own favor. His reward is to succeed his father. It’s not giving much away to say that the CIA helps ensure this succession, thus benefiting American oil.
Syriana is supposedly based on Robert Baer’s book See No Evil, an account of his days in the CIA. Baer was stationed in Beirut in the mid-1980s, and, since leaving the agency, has made a career as pundit on the Middle East and the intelligence community. In fact, Syriana has very little to do with See No Evil, and far more with Baer’s second book, Sleeping With the Devil, describing how the US, because of oil, has looked the other way on Saudi Arabia’s troubling relationships with militant Islamic groups.
That theme has nourished a bevy of post-9/11 films and non-specialist books about the Middle East, most prominently Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Most of these efforts are paper thin when it comes to understanding regional realities. But that’s hardly news: popular culture has always depicted the Arab world ineptly-not necessarily degradingly, but usually shallowly. To an extent that’s understandable, since few cultures display subtlety in portraying very different ones in their popular media. The thing is, Syriana is utterly frivolous in depicting something the director and producers should have known something about: the United States.
Like Moore, Gaghan falls back on an old theme in the film-making repertoire: the malevolence of large corporations manipulating vile governments. No beef there, but given that Hollywood is an invention of large corporations, the criticism is a trifle hypocritical. And as Peter Nolan and Sacha Kumaria have written about Syriana, the idea that multinationals control oil markets is laughable. “The reality is that the heart of the oil industry, the vast fields in the Persian Gulf, Russia and elsewhere, are already the private preserve of governments, who own 80 percent of the world’s oil reserves, shutting out foreigners and the private sector.”
No less laughable, they note, is expecting that the CIA will readily murder those obstructing the welfare of US oil. The relationship between big oil and government is undeniably cooperative at times, just look at the current Bush administration; but it’s not invariably so: during the Clinton years, the administration was not pleased that American oil was cutting deals with an Iraq under sanctions. But Gaghan’s point is different; his aim is less to be accurate than to offer a cautionary tale about American politics; and here, too, his intentional ambiguity is disturbing.
Baer’s memoirs cover the Clinton years, and Syriana seems to take place before 9/11. However, it is not Bill Clinton’s legacy that the film-makers are going after (Gaghan and Clooney are voluble Democrats). Rather, if the release date of a film says anything about its message, then it is the current Bush administration that Syriana is warning against. And while no one would deny Bush has been an aficionado of big oil, he has also been far more willing to address democracy issues in the Middle East, despite American oil politics, than Clinton ever was.
More than ever, the Middle East has become Rashomon-like in its capacity to serve as a vehicle for very personal interpretations of the US government, not necessarily substantiated by facts. That may be fine for American film-makers and actors, but it doesn’t help anyone learn more about the region, oil markets, or about US politics for that matter.