The world is flat, claims one well-known advocate of American imperial power, and Syriana’s first transition seems to agree: An Islamic chant plays over the Warner Bros. emblem, only to switch to hiphop when the logo yields to an establishing shot of Tehran. The city, the world capital of MDMA, boasts a young man scoring an illicit commodity from a rumpled, bearded, Farsi-speaking American. The latter is no drug dealer, though. He’s CIA Agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney), peddling some sort of missile to somebody expected to advance American interests somewhere between the Mediterranean and the Caspian. Barnes walks away, a car explodes, and the action switches to Georgetown. This world is not flat, it turns out, but a tangle of competing interests that all run through the Middle East.
Or maybe it’s merely the movie that’s a tangle. Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who scripted Steven Soderbergh’s structurally kindred Traffic, the intriguing but finally unsatisfying Syriana is the latest product of the Clooney-Soderbergh salutary-cinema factory. Whereas the Clooney-directed Good Night, and Good Luck. was a period film that worked in miniature, the Clooney-produced Syriana is a contemporary global epic whose unified-oil-field theory encompasses CIA malfeasance, Islamic terrorism, Gulf State despotism, and the corporate-political influence market that another Clooney-Soderbergh project dubbed K Street.
Gaghan doesn’t seek to explain all this. The script, “suggested” by See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, a book by former Company man Robert Baer (whose name probably inspired Bob Barnes’), omits some basic points, including the meaning of the film’s title. (It’s a policy insider’s term for a revamped Middle East.) In a season whose upcoming Big Movies—Munich, Brokeback Mountain, and even King Kong—all push toward three hours, Gaghan has held his to two, reportedly at the cost of an entire subplot. But he may have clipped the wrong scenes: While leaving some of the central plot dangling, he retains a father–son motif that’s less than integral.
For two of the characters, at least, the generational link is crucial. Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig) is the prince of an unidentified country—let’s call it Pseudo Arabia—who must contend with his brother for the chance to succeed his father. And Geneva-based American energy-biz analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is offered a shot at advising Prince Nasir after a horrible incident: Woodman’s young son dies at the prince’s father’s estate in Spain. But Barnes’ strained relationship with his teenage son (Max Minghella, as miffed as in Bee Season) isn’t essential, and neither are the ones between impatient Pakistani petro-grunt Wasim (Mazhar Munir) and his complacent father, and Washington corporate lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) and his alcoholic pop. (The last seems to exist just so Gaghan can use shots of funky Shaw to contrast with the opulence of the oil-baron lifestyle.)
Prince Nasir is a reformer who accepts Woodman’s argument that Pseudo Arabia must build an economy that will outlast its petroleum reserves. Barnes is a principled troublemaker who doesn’t like being used to advance American corporate interests. All three are in the path of a Texas oil merger that involves two executives (Chris Cooper and Tim Blake Nelson) who preach the gospels according to Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand—not to mention Holiday and his law-firm bosses’ (Christopher Plummer and Nicky Henson) trying to determine just how many miscreants they must surrender to the Department of Justice before the deal will be approved. Meanwhile, the U.S. government encourages plans for a coup in Iran, the Chinese maneuver for control of Pseudo Arabia’s oil, and Wasim is drawn to an Islamic school, where he’s picked for a suicide mission. Oh, and Woodman’s wife (Amanda Peet) leaves Geneva, probably disgruntled at what a small part she has.
Syriana will surely be criticized for its politics, but its most hapless feature is its drama. Like Clooney, Gaghan is a graduate of the Soderbergh School of Directing, and his editing, framing, and camera movements constitute a polished demonstration of the contemporary crypto-documentary style. The characterization, however, is considerably less crisp: It’s impossible to tell whether Barnes’, Woodman’s, and Holiday’s mutability is a moral judgment or just directorial weakness. Most of the characters click into focus only to deliver a single speech—which tends to reduce the movie to a powerful trailer that tells us almost as much as the whole thing.
But then again, why watch the whole thing? For a film that purports to a radical critique of contemporary geopolitics, Syriana doesn’t provide any big surprises. It’s a firecracker that detonates years after most Americans have decided they can’t trust Arab princes, K Street lawyers, or Texas oil moguls.
In April 2004, John Kerry appeared on Meet the Press, and Tim Russert chided him for having testified 33 years earlier that U.S. troops committed atrocities in Vietnam. “A lot of those stories have been discredited,” Russert asserted without evidence, presumably restoring honor to the American endeavor in a single clause.
Perhaps Russert could take a 95-minute break from spit-shining the status quo to see Winter Soldier, a seldom-shown 1972 documentary about the conference that inspired Kerry’s testimony. A cinéma vérité treatment so early-’70s in spirit that it doesn’t even credit an individual director, this artless film merely records some of what more than 125 anguished Vietnam veterans divulged during a 1971 conference in Detroit. Aside from showing a few photographs, the men don’t provide any evidence for their stories, either. But their tears, shudders, and broken voices corroborate their accounts, and the unblinking acceptance of their peers indicates that what these soldiers saw and did was commonplace.
After the Tom Paine epigraph that provides the name of the conference—the gist is that “winter soldiers” are more stalwart than “summer patriots”—the movie opens with the registration of a participant. When he reveals that he’s a former helicopter pilot, the man is asked if he ever knew of Vietnamese prisoners being thrown from choppers. Of course, he says. That’s why there were orders never to count prisoners when they were loaded onto a copter, but only when they disembarked.
The vets describe other gruesome incidents that might seem to be the handiwork of reprobates and sociopaths, but even those fit a pattern. Shortly after one guy recalls seeing a USAID employee (yes, a civilian) gut and skin a Vietnamese woman, another says that his last bit of instruction at Camp Pendleton was watching his drill instructor cuddle a rabbit—only to suddenly break its neck and disembowel it. Sexual torture of women and girls, shooting little boys as if they were rats, cutting off ears and trading them in for beers—all this was part of what one veteran calls a “body-count war.” Success in Vietnam was measured not in land captured but in enemies killed. And how were civilians distinguished from Viet Cong? They were still alive. “Anyone you killed was VC,” explains one man, a statement of unofficial U.S. military policy that is echoed by others. There were orders—that’s the essential message of Winter Soldier.
Is everyone here telling the truth? It’s impossible to say. Some may be lying, exaggerating, or claiming someone else’s nightmares as their own. But the notion that a lot of these stories have been discredited is simply untrue. The same month that Russert verbally fragged Kerry, the Toledo Blade published an exposé of a U.S. Army Tiger Force unit allegedly responsible for hundreds of incidents of mutilation, torture, rape, and murder, and such historians as Nicholas Turse and Richard Moser have documented many more. The latter has said that “there is no doubt there was a pattern of abuse of civilians and war crimes and atrocities in Vietnam.”
To those who don’t remember the Vietnam War, Winter Soldier may seem antique; certainly many of the film’s hairstyles and much of its slang are. Yet anyone who’s been paying attention to the occupation of Iraq will recognize certain mind-sets, tactics, and weapons. There is, for example, a discussion of the horrible burns inflicted by “Willy Peter,” the Nam-era term for white phosphorus, a chemical weapon that U.S. troops have used in Iraq. Still, the re-released film would have benefited from the addition of an epilogue that makes a few connections between 1971 and 2005 explicit. Perhaps this could suffice: Although an Army inquiry concluded that 18 members of that Tiger Force unit committed crimes, none were ever charged or court-martialed. At the time the investigation evaporated, the White House chief of staff was Dick Cheney, and the U.S. secretary of defense was Donald Rumsfeld.CP