What C. Wright Mills Already Knew: Syriana

Turns out, pow­er is some­thing worth dis­cussing, even if you thought Who Gov­erns? explained that trou­ble­some bogey­man away. Get out your Gram­sci, Fanon, Reuther, Niebuhr, Fou­cault, Said and Ander­son, put on a pot of cof­fee and the­o­rize Black­wa­ter, Bech­tel, Hal­libur­ton and The Car­lyle Group. As an incip­i­ent, lack­sadaisi­cal polit­i­cal sci­en­tist, I’d say the film lacked an addi­tion­al lay­er of com­plex­i­ty and sub­tle­ty by miss­ing the role played by NGO’s and non­prof­it cor­po­ra­tions min­ing a lucra­tive third way. Why both­er with shad­owy front oper­a­tions when the mon­ey can be fun­neled back and forth between well-mean­ing third parties?

From a moviego­ing per­spec­tive, Syr­i­ana does things that con­fus­es Amer­i­cans (read: non-ide­o­log­i­cal thinkers) by vio­lat­ing cer­tain prin­ci­ples of fair­ness which auto­mat­i­cal­ly sub­verts the exoti­cist ram­page sto­ry­line. This is Melville and Con­rad ter­ri­to­ry, albeit less poet­ic, sus­pend­ed in a val­ue neu­tral vac­u­um. This is beyond good and evil; these are tac­ti­cal loss­es and col­lat­er­al dam­age, tit for tat. Final­ly a metaphor for the move­ments of port­fo­lio cap­i­tal, embod­ied in the sev­er­al per­sons ani­mat­ing the drama.

Unlike Moore, Gaghan and Clooney (chan­nel­ing some­thing he must have learned under David O. Rus­sell) con­spire to cre­ate a near­ly unim­peach­able polit­i­cal film, so restrained it can’t be con­sid­ered excit­ing or sus­pense­ful or any of the Oscar-wor­thy blurb clich­es that will doubt­less be imput­ed to it. Syr­i­ana refutes Soder­bergh’s ham­fist­ed lec­ture on the war on drugs and com­pli­cates mat­ters by pre­sent­ing a sto­ry in which alle­giances change, lessons are learned and time over­laps, rather than evolv­ing from one point through an arc, cre­at­ing a sto­ry rife with coin­ci­dence and stink­ing with serendip­i­ty. Unlike the rev­e­la­tions of Medi­um Cool, Syr­i­ana’s mes­sage breaks across faces with the same grim real­iza­tion under­gone by the exe­cu­tion­er in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, not out of enlight­en­ment, but painful necessity.