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.
Um, yeah. Just ask Mohammad Mossadegh.
Ignoring international law, Britain and the US opted for the high-risk strategy of regime change in order to pre-empt a volatile enemy in the Middle East. It was not Iraq, however, that was in the firing line but Iran, and the aftershocks are still being felt.
Fifty years ago this week, the CIA and the British SIS orchestrated a coup d’etat that toppled the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh. The prime minister and his nationalist supporters in parliament roused Britain’s ire when they nationalised the oil industry in 1951, which had previously been exclusively controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mossadegh argued that Iran should begin profiting from its vast oil reserves.
Britain accused him of violating the company’s legal rights and orchestrated a worldwide boycott of Iran’s oil that plunged the country into financial crisis. The British government tried to enlist the Americans in planning a coup, an idea originally rebuffed by President Truman. But when Dwight Eisenhower took over the White House, cold war ideologues – determined to prevent the possibility of a Soviet takeover – ordered the CIA to embark on its first covert operation against a foreign government.
A new book about the coup, All the Shah’s Men, which is based on recently released CIA documents, describes how the CIA – with British assistance – undermined Mossadegh’s government by bribing influential figures, planting false reports in newspapers and provoking street violence. Led by an agent named Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, the CIA leaned on a young, insecure Shah to issue a decree dismissing Mossadegh as prime minister. By the end of Operation Ajax, some 300 people had died in firefights in the streets of Tehran.
The crushing of Iran’s first democratic government ushered in more than two decades of dictatorship under the Shah, who relied heavily on US aid and arms. The anti-American backlash that toppled the Shah in 1979 shook the whole region and helped spread Islamic militancy, with Iran’s new hardline theocracy declaring undying hostility to the US.
But that’s water under the bridge. Spilled milk. Yesterday’s news. Back to the simple clean world of Richard Cohen:
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.
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.
Maybe they could make a movie about the “altruism, a naive compulsion to do good” embodied in a character who is “awesomely incompetent” and, “monumentally ignorant and incurious”. Oh wait. They already did.
Oooo. And it’s a love story too. Pass the popcorn and let’s hope Cohen doesn’t doze off before the credits roll. I wouldn’t want him to miss how that war finished up…