Syriana: ‘Realism’ or a Left-Wing Assault on Oil?

Oil companies are evil and the root of that evil is America’s endless thirst for oil. At least that’s the spin of the new movie Syriana, which the media have called “powerful,” “ambitious” and “Something you might even call realism.”

The film stars actor George Clooney as a CIA operative as part of several converging story lines about oil company corruption and Mideast politics. Critics and journalists have seized on the story line to speak favorably of its left-wing, anti-industry message and simply to blast the Bush administration.

In a November 23 Los Angeles Times review headlined “Perils of capitalism,” Kevin Turan wasn’t subtle about the connection. “The overarching focus on enhancing reality is in the service of making us believe that what we’re seeing on screen in Syriana just might be happening at this very moment, that a shadowy, amoral cabal of untouchable Washington power brokers might be pulling the strings that control the world,” he said.

Turan claimed that writer/director Stephen “Gaghan uses the cover of genre picture-making to present a scathing critique of how America acts to protect its interests, how we try to get the world to dance to our tune, and what the consequences of those actions can be.”

ABC’s “Good Morning America” had stars from the film on back-to-back days before its limited release in late November. On November 22, while talking to actor Jeffrey Wright, Diane Sawyer passed along the movie’s view of the oil industry: “Making a thriller, for instance, about –- the oil business and how it takes everybody’s life who gets near it, and turns it around and sometimes sacrifices it.”

The previous day, she ended her interview with Clooney urging viewers to see it. “As I said, it’s pulse-pounding stuff and a really ambitious movie. Learn something,” said Sawyer.

What viewers would “learn” was that the film painted all of the oil men in the film as greedy, corrupt, and thriving off of the “chaos” America supposedly generates in the Middle East. The major oil company characters were intent on pulling off a merger despite breaking the law. Their legal representatives took the same Machiavellian approach and an energy analyst played by Matt Damon leveraged the accidental death of his child into a multimillion-dollar business opportunity. Pakistani oil workers turned suicide bombers received more positive treatment.

According to the December 7 New York Times, Syriana is one of the season’s offerings that “have overt social purposes and activist campaigns attached to their movies.”

“And while its political attitude is unmistakable -– that the American need for oil shamefully depends on Middle East chaos –- its fleshed-out characters never lecture the audience,” argued Caryn James of the Times.

In a discussion session after a December 7 preview showing in Washington, D.C., director Gaghan said he tried to keep from being an advocate: “I don’t think anybody wants to be preached to, least of all by a Hollywood filmmaker.” Gaghan did add that he had a different, more upbeat ending originally but that offered “too much hope for these times.”

However, Gaghan has used the film as part of an effort to complain about American dependence on oil. His discussion session included representatives from left-wing environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as self-described conservatives. Those groups are involved in an initiative called “Set America Free” that claims “the United States can immediately begin to introduce a global economy based on next-generation fuels and vehicles that can utilize them.”

Syriana is also involved with a Web site called Participate.net, which is running a “campaign to to reduce our dependence on oil.” According to the site, “Oil addiction. It saps America’s economic strength, pollutes our environment, and jeopardizes national security.”

The reviews of the film have kept with that political message. In A.O. Scott’s November 23 New York Times review, it was obvious that the media were OK with the message. “Someone is sure to complain that the world doesn’t really work the way it does in Syriana; that oil companies, law firms and Middle Eastern regimes are not really engaged in semiclandestine collusion, to control the global oil supply and thus influence the destinies of millions of people. OK, maybe. Call me naïve –- or paranoid, or liberal, or whatever the favored epithet is this week –- but I’m inclined to give Mr. Gaghan the benefit of the doubt,” said Scott.

Scott added that it “pushes beyond the clichés of heroism and suspense toward something a good deal more unsettling. Something you might even call realism.”


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