Hollywood's Crude Cliches

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I don't know if anyone does time capsules anymore, but if they do I suggest that a DVD of the George Clooney movie "Syriana" be included. I'm not sure it tells you much about today's America -- not as much as an iPod, for instance, or a clip from "Entertainment Tonight" -- but it sure tells you something about Hollywood and how it never made the transition to color. When it comes to politics, many of its people -- including movie critics -- still see things in black and white.

It's impossible to summarize the plot of "Syriana." Most reviewers have called it complicated, often using the term as a compliment. I can tell you from firsthand experience that you will never know what's going on. It's doubtful the screenwriter-director himself, Stephen Gaghan, can tell you. The best I can do is quote from the New York Times review by A.O. Scott, who says the movie is an "intriguing narrative about oil, terrorism, money and power." Scott, incidentally, loved the movie.

But the reason I include "Syriana" in my imaginary time capsule is not its complicated plot but its simplistic politics. Again, I turn to Scott: "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. . . . O.K., maybe. Call me naive -- 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." As you can see, movie critics spend a lot of time in the dark.

You will not be surprised to learn that the locus for all this "oil, terrorism, money and power" is the United States, which is up to no good. With the exception of the Clooney character, everyone is corrupt, including, of course, the CIA. The agency not only sets up one of its own, Clooney, but it assassinates a perfectly nice Middle Eastern potentate to ensure that his oil remains in friendly hands. This sort of thing is distinctly against the law, a true career-ender at the CIA and elsewhere, but never mind. A movie does not have to stick to the facts.

Still, if it is going to say anything, then it ought to say something smart and timely. But, the cynicism of "Syriana" is out of time and place, a homage to John le Carre, who himself is dated. To read George Packer's "The Assassin's Gate" is to be reminded that the Iraq war is not the product of oil avarice, or CIA evil, but of a surfeit of altruism, a naive compulsion to do good. That entire collection of neo- and retro-conservatives -- George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and particularly Paul Wolfowitz -- made war not for oil or for empire but to end the horror of Saddam Hussein and, yes, reorder the Middle East.

They were inept. They were duplicitous. They were awesomely incompetent, and, in the case of Bush, they were monumentally ignorant and incurious, but they did not give a damn for oil or empire. This is why so many liberals, myself included, originally supported the war. It engaged us emotionally. It seemed . . . well, right -- a just cause.

It would be nice if Hollywood understood that. It would be nice if those who agree with Hollywood -- who think, as Gaghan does, that this is a brave, speaking-truth-to-power movie when it's really just an outdated cliche -- could release their fervid grip on old-left bromides about Big Oil, Big Business, Big Government and the inherent evil of George Bush, and come up with something new and relevant. I say that because something new and relevant is desperately needed. Neoconservatism crashed and burned in Iraq, but liberalism never even showed up. The left's criticism of the war from the very start was too often a porridge of inanities about oil or empire or Halliburton -- or isolationism by another name. It was childish and ultimately ineffective. The war came and Bush was reelected. How's that for a clean whiff?

If, as Dooley Wilson sings in "Casablanca," "a kiss is still a kiss," then a movie is only a movie -- and literal truth does not matter. "Casablanca" itself proves the point. The plot is silly, basically a love story superimposed on a footnote of World War II. But it's a great movie nonetheless. "Syriana" is different because it's first and foremost a political statement, a cinematic manifesto of the tired and empty cynicism of too many on the left. "Syriana" is not a bad movie. It is just a better cartoon.


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