I was keen to see Syriana at the weekend. The film won a best supporting actor award for George Clooney (it was not, as is sometimes stated, for his role in Good Night and Good Luck). Clooney is a rather divisive actor, bless him, and many people took exception to his rather sanctimonius Oscar acceptance speech.
Tim Newman lives in Dubai, and he posts his thoughts on the oil industry and all things related at Desert Sun. Last week, he took Clooney and the makers of Syriana to task over some glaring factual inaccuracies in the film. It is quite an interesting insight into the film, but I fear on many of the points Tim might be missing the point. Many of the inaccuracies – which I looked out for when I saw it on Saturday – are clearly plot devices of the most basic kind. In reality, a US oil company may not plaster its logo over a refinery in the Middle-East… but taking such a liberty allows the film-makers to establish a link between two apparently disparate plot-lines. The strapline of the film is, after all, “everything is connected”.
And this mantra, this thesis, does hold water, even if the film presents an illiterate take on the oil industry. I do not see anything particularly radical, or left wing in this assertion. Indeed, I am reminded of an article by Nicholas Boles, Director of the right-wing Policy Exchange think-tank, which was published in The Times less than a month before the war in Iraq began. In “A perfectly moral case for fighting for Iraq’s oilfields”, Boles pointed out that a stable Middle-East is essential for the stability of western economies, (and therefore third world countries too). Yes, we meddle in the Middle-East. And yes, it is a good thing.
The characters in Syriana say much the same thing. For them, US control of the oil supply is obviously a necessity, and of obvious national interest. They truly believe this, even if the prime motivation is money. Not even the more morally upstanding characters, such as Jeffry Wright’s lawyer, or David Clennon’s Attorney General, refute this.
What these characters do refute, however, is the suggestion that Syriana is awash with stereotypes. Bennet Holiday (Wright) in particular is difficult to pin down as either a good guy or bad guy. Likewise with Matt Damon’s character, energy analyst Bryan Woodman, who we sympathise with due to the death of his son, but who nevertheless leaves his family to follow a lucrative and career making contract. The arrogant play-boy Prince Meshal is at least pro-West, while his more idealistic brother Prince Nasir looking like he may become another Osama Bin Laden by the time the film closes. One might expect Clooney’s character to save the day. He does not.
I was most struck by Chris Cooper’s character, oil man Jimmy Pope, who persuades lawyer Holiday not to delve too deeply into the workings of the oil business. He is obviously guilty of bribery, but (within the confines of his board room, obviously) he admits as much openly, and is somewhat incredulous that this should be considered wrong. Of course they bribe people! How else would they get the oil? And film asks the question of us, too. This is our reality (says another character), and if we want it to continue, then we must not just accept that bribery happens. It is actually desirable.
These exchanges are echos of interviews that writer/director Stephen Gaghan had with real oil industry executives. In a very interesting podcast interview with Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Gaghan explains how he researched and then constructed the film. During his travels and interviews, he was reminded how easily an economic balance, or simply the balance of power, can be tipped one way or another. Unlike his previous film Traffic, the idea behind this latest offering was to show, through carefully chosen transitions, how small, and connected, the world is.
I think Syriana succeeds in this respect. When it asks “Imagine if 30% of America were unable to heat their houses…” it reminds us that our governments should and must be concerned about global oil supply. The most telling line in the film is when two lawyers celebrate their role in the merger of two companies:

“You just visited what someday soon could be the most profitable corporation in America… Provided we don’t start running cars on water”

Contrast this with the following:

And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources — and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.
State of the Union 2006

President George W Bush knows that the only way out of the mess he finds himself in – we find ourselves in – is to move onto a better source of energy, one less adulterated with blood. If Syriana can persuade people in the United States (and elsewhere) of this imperative, then I think we can be tolerant of its inaccuracies and stereotypes where they exist. The message is a sound one.

3 Replies to “Syriana”

  1. These are fair comments Robert, and I admit that some of my criticisms are only really of interest to somebody like me who knows the system pretty well.
    But the point about the logos was IMO an important one, although not regarding the logos per se. The fact that no foreign company owns and operates a facility in the Middle East, and that the national oil companies are in total control of their western partners, means a lot of the message in this film is based on a completely false basis. By this, I mean the “everything is connected” is not true (at least in the way that it was so well protrayed in Traffic). The director has established a link between Western oil executives, the lives of immigrant workers in the Gulf, and the interests of Gulf governments where none exists (or at least, not in the manner which is presented).
    For this reason alone I cannot forgive the film; it is misleading in the extreme, at a time when I can really do without people in the Middle East feeling increased hostility towards Western oil workers.
    All that said, your comments are interesting coming from somebody who obviously displays a healthy degree of skepticism, but is more neutral on the issue than I am.

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