Not Syriana. In Grist, David Roberts eloquently nominates the film , extolling its rough edges, stressing what it is not (not adolescent, not a paranoid conspiracy theory, not stupid). He admits:
When I first heard about the "oil movie," I figured it would be about oil the same way so much is about oil these days, via innuendo and implication, with conspiracy and malevolence hovering shapeless in the background. But no: This really is a movie forthrightly and directly about oil — who has it, who sells it, who buys it, and who gets caught up in its grinding gears.
But I have to side with the hardened lefty Marc Cooper, who refused to see the glass as half full:
Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, (award-winning writer of “Traffic”), Syriana bludgeons you with the relentless message that you are watching something Terribly Important – but I couldn’t quite figure out exactly what that something was.
No question that the flick was an admirable exercise in the sort of risk-taking to which Hollywood is downright phobic. And it’s clearly an Adult Film in the very best sense of the phrase. So an “A” for effort and a courtesy, gentleman’s “C” for the final product.
All I came away with were notions I think I already knew: oil companies are greedy and ruthless; government is a pawn in the hands of such powers; and the CIA kills people it doesn’t like and is perfectly willing to eat its own when expedient. Oh yeah, there was a whole subplot in this weave of disparate narratives about Iran and some sort of neo-connish Committee to Liberate Iran, but one of you viewers out there is going to have to explain that part to me.
(Actually, understanding the "Committee to Liberate Iran" isn’t that difficult, if you ask me. Substitute real-life Iraq for the dramatic stand-in Iran, substitute the Project for the New American Century for the "Committee" and the idea’s pretty obvious, right down to the connections between the super-rich far right conservatives (such as the John M. Olin Foundation) and well-known pro-war Washington mucky-mucks such as Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld.)
To be fair, I must second Roberts’ admiration for George Clooney, who couldn’t be braver, and manages to carry the movie while looking anything like a star. Still, unlike Traffic (which Gaghan adapted, and Steven Soderburgh directed), Syriana is a movie focused on people explicitly not like us. We meet Saudi princes, Pakistani youths, Hezbollah radicals; even the Americans we encounter are far richer, more reckless, more desperate than us. These people are, in other words, "the other."
"Everything is connected" is the tagline for Syriana, but unlike Traffic–which forced us to confront the horror of illegal drugs right here at home–Syriana stays away from our kind. It actually takes torture for us to feel the pain that Clooney’s character vaguely expresses with his confused actions. Gaghan’s inability to bring home our part in the shame of oil makes Syriana an interesting experiment; not an honest-to-God movie.
In truth, the genius of Traffic–which, an English screenwriting friend reminded me, was based on an already-extraordinary mini-series–was not its complex structure, as captivating and suspenseful as that turned out to be; not the performances, though Michael Douglas has never been better; not even its masterful direction. Traffic was great because it made drug addiction, even heroin addiction, seem all too cool, all too imaginable. (Maybe the fact that Gaghan was once addicted to heroin had something to do with that.) No movie I’ve ever seen gave hard drugs their due. Syriana, by contrast, is considerably more violent, and far less affecting…an emotional desert.
Brokeback Mountain has an axe to grind of its own, but one of a different kind. It’s about male homosexual love in unforgiving Wyoming, yet by its nature this movie ties its characters–and us–to the natural world. The beauty of the mountains that surround the two young cowboys one summer is never mentioned, but cannot be overlooked. Nobody remarks on the view; they barely see it. As in the original short story by Annie Proulx, to cowboy, the landscape is a place to work:
Ennis and Jack, the dogs, horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up the trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery Meadows and the coursing, endless wind.
It’s about as good a short story as you’ll ever read, but if you read it for lyrical descriptions, of love or the mountains, you’ll be disappointed. But that (in part) is Proulx’s point. This natural world doesn’t require her words to work on the cowboys or on us; that’s its glory. And glory is a big part of the point of the story, as she mentioned in a press conference with screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, featured in New West:
This is one of the most powerful landscapes on earth and everybody who roams it knows it. There’s a visceral, unexplainable, indecipherable force that binds people to this place. I’ve known people from here who’ve gone east and they become just heartsick to be back here again.
Binding us to the planet; that is what film can do better, probably, than any other medium, and that is what "Brokeback Mountain" did better than any other movie this year. Strange that a story about homosexual love should reawaken us to the beauty of the planet, but that’s drama for you: It’s the unpredictable that makes it live within us.
"Love Is A Force of Nature," was the tagline from the movie. But the truth is, it works the other way around just as well.