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Movie Review: Syriana and Munich: Fuel for “Thought”

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Spoiler alert: proceed with caution.

Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana

In Syriana writer-director Stephen Gaghan contrives a situation in which the machinations of the CIA, a couple of American oil companies, the U.S. Department of Justice, and a large American corporate law firm culminate in the assassination of a fictional Persian Gulf state prince. The prince is working with an idealistic American energy analyst located in Switzerland to democratize the principality’s oil industry in the teeth of his decadent brother who is, unfortunately, heir to the throne. Gaghan doesn’t explain why any arm of the U.S. government would want to take out a native champion of democracy in the region. (The implicit premise must be that everything the government now says it’s doing there is a lie.) Nor does he explain why oil companies wouldn’t prefer democratic ownership of the oil in Arab hands. This 18 March 2003 Cato Institute article does offer such an explanation, but the point isn’t what makes sense outside the movie’s framework, but what makes sense inside it.

[ADBLOCKHERE]Gaghan doesn’t explain much of anything in Syriana, yet the movie gives you the impression that, although you may not be able to follow the complicated plotting, it has explained everything to do with politics and the oil business in the Middle East. (There’s a relatively clear synopsis of the various storylines at the film’s official website, but I don’t think it will change your experience of the movie, even if you read it first.) The storytelling in Syriana is as murky as in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946), except that there’s more at stake here, e.g., the audience’s belief in the good faith of the American government. I’m pretty sure Gaghan himself wouldn’t want to be convicted on an equally veiled and disorganized presentation of “evidence.” His movie is “weighty” yet vaporous, like a metal in a volatilized state—a big sun-blotting cloud of what Hollywood calls “ideas.”

All the same, Gaghan brings an enormous amount of narrative energy to the project. His script has enough characters and cross-purposes for a modern-day King Lear (it even has royalty), but he seems unaware of how remote and uninvolving they remain. Syriana is what King Lear would be if it were a checklist of the dangers attending succession in Nth-century England and not a poetic tragedy. Syriana certainly is not tragic: both the noble prince and the CIA agent played by George Clooney, who senses what’s afoot and tries, ineffectually, to stop it, are victims rather than tragic heroes. And Gaghan’s mood is far from the hallmark speculativeness of tragedy; he’s entirely too sure he knows what makes things turn out badly in this world. Exactly how the good guys are victimized remains so obscure, however, that the movie can’t even function as melodrama, though that’s the order of Gaghan’s political thinking—i.e., there are big-and-I-mean-big, source-of-all-evil villains among us and the good guys can’t do anything against their missiles.

If Gaghan had developed character for its own sake and not relied so heavily on his belief that he knows what’s really going on around the shrinking globe, Syriana could have been heady, maybe even devastating. Part of the problem is that he intercuts among his roughed-out episodes in a surprisingly tasteful manner. Syriana is incendiary only by implication; the experience of sitting through it is actually lulling. It’s the suavest of the political movies getting attention this awards season, but by the same stroke the least plugged-in to the audience.

Gaghan piles one storyline on another but is only interested in suggesting where they trend, working like a (cynical) editorialist who has made up a few examples to support his views. As a result, the movie isn’t convincing as journalism, exalting as tragedy, stirring as romance, or exciting as melodrama. This is the same problem that made Gaghan’s script for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) a non-starter. Both movies convey a couple hours’ worth of gaudy, made-up bad news with bland objectivity; unfortunately for Syriana, Gaghan lacks Soderbergh’s crisp talent as an editor.

The deadest spot of Syriana is the storyline involving the Pakistani boy working in the Arab oilfield who is laid off and becomes a terrorist. Gaghan treats his descent naturalistically, step by step, but so affectlessly that the movie gains nothing from having the episode acted out rather than merely cited as a statistic. It isn’t just poetry that’s missing, or moviemaking panache, but depth of conjecture. Hollywood movies about young Germans who became Nazis—The Mortal Storm (1940), Hitler’s Children (1943), Tomorrow, the World! (1944), and later Swing Kids (1993)—are ludicrously overwrought, but Gaghan’s birth-of-a-terrorist anecdote in Syriana doesn’t make much of a case for the underwrought approach.

These anti-Nazi movies at least endow their deluded followers with moral agency: they choose to become saber-toothed sheep. For all the superficial naturalism, Gaghan treats the Pakistani boy anonymously, as one among millions prey to larger forces. He never gets inside what drives boys in that culture and of that class to make this decision. It’s weird: Gaghan tries to get to us by showing the bad things that happen to individuals, but in his political scheme, as in his narrative approach, individuals don’t matter. But his movie doesn’t have enough force to convey an epic vision, either. Syriana is a very busy, and very confident, movie, and yet it feels fatally underimagined.

Steven Spielberg’s Munich

How much you admire Steven Spielberg’s Munich seems to be a function of whether you approach it as an action picture broadened to address a complex geopolitical situation, or as a complex geopolitical situation sized down to the dimensions of an action picture. If you approach it in the former way, then you may see it as “intelligent” and “sensitive.” If you approach it in the latter way, you may not see it at all. The claim I don’t think anyone can sustain on the movie’s behalf is that the action-picture conventions, which Spielberg uses as a matter of course, in themselves bring out the nuances of the situation. Quite the contrary.

Munich is about a group of top-secret assassins recruited by the Israeli government to track down and eliminate the men behind the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich summer Olympics. The Black September Organization, a Palestinian terrorist group, claims responsibility for the massacre but after the dust has settled the surviving murderers and masterminds are scattered about Europe and the Middle East. The movie follows just one Israeli hit squad out of a number, who act to retaliate for Munich but also both to prevent and discourage further outrages. Avner (Eric Bana), the photogenic leader of the movie’s team, gets their instructions from Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), a Mossad handler who teases Avner about the imposed official secrecy of the operation that requires him to withhold the information Avner most wants—i.e., that they’re targeting the men actually responsible for Munich. Avner never gets that assurance and the strain of what he’s doing finally destroys his sense of righteous mission.

The movie quickly establishes a rhythm: each assassination requires Avner’s team to solve technical problems involving the target’s location and lifestyle, and each success is followed by increasing tension among the team and doubt on Avner’s part about what they’re doing. Spielberg clearly thinks the assassins’ subsequent questioning of their activities deepens his action-picture methods; to my mind, the relationship between Spielberg’s methods and that questioning is far less productive. First of all, the way in which Spielberg varies the hits (travelogue settings, nail-biting hitches) suggests that he’s primarily hoping to hold our interest with the (inevitably glamorous) suspense mechanics. And because the assassinations are conceived and shot as entertainment we never get a sense of what it’s actually like to be a government assassin, to be, in essence, a lethal civil servant. In other words, Munich entirely overlooks what might well be the central subject to a documentarian. (The movie doesn’t even make clear why Avner’s team sometimes employs elaborate, risky techniques, such as planting a bomb in a man’s home phone rather than just shooting him on the street, like the man before and one after, which lends a discordant note of slapstick to the movie.) Spielberg goes into each assassination doing what he does best—engineer excitement by manipulating perspective and timing. So when the assassins encounter impediments, we root for them in a way all too familiar from countless movies built around merely private, rather than quasi-judicial, acts of mayhem. Consequently, the brow-scrunching and ethical debates don’t grow out of the assassinations, they merely follow them, and are not only inadequate but irrelevant.

This being a Spielberg movie, the most effective talking point is considered a statement by a terrorist that all the Palestinians want is a home. Well, for goodness’ sake, everybody wants a home. No reasonable person thinks that even the most unregenerate of terrorists is subhuman by nature. The debate is over moral decisions: the question is not, Why did he act? but, Why did he act violently without warning against civilians? (And any explanation of this particular situation that leaves out anti-Semitism, as Munich does, is going to be short of the mark.) In addition, part of what disconcerts the assassins is having to kill one man who translates poetry and another who has a beautiful, mannerly daughter. These points are similarly irrelevant, however, because when a terrorist murders civilians without warning, he is not acting as a poet or as a father. It’s not a revelation that there are other aspects of his life that contrast jarringly with his actions as a terrorist, but it’s solely his actions as a terrorist that have brought the Israeli death-squad to his door. The terrorists might have chosen other means but did not, and their deaths are the consequences of that choice.

Because 90-odd years of feature filmmaking have produced no precedents, it seems safe to say that an analysis of whether violent political reprisal for political violence is morally justified is not something a fictional movie can handle well. But even if this were a promising subject for a movie, nothing in Spielberg’s résumé suggests he’s the man for the job—the subject is too inherently wordy. As Spielberg has shot the script by Eric Roth and Tony Kushner the action and the subsequent discussions are in completely different modes and cancel each other out. This wouldn’t be the case if he had shot the assassinations more objectively, in the problem-solving manner, say, of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), the most cerebral, least fakey of all World War II POW escape movies. This would also be appropriate for the movie’s non-epic emphasis on personal reactions to political actions.

Spielberg doesn’t even seem to be searching for a new way of addressing the large-scale subject of political violence, either by following an individual character, as in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit soldat (1960), or by following mass action, as in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966). Pontecorvo does romanticize the epic upsurge that the Algerian terrorists hope to ignite but he doesn’t sentimentalize the individual actors as Spielberg does. And Pontecorvo, even more passionately than Godard, feels the subject merits a new approach (though a different one from Godard’s). Spielberg goes out on a limb stylistically in one sequence, showing Avner deliriously fucking his wife in sweaty slow motion while ruminating about the murder of the athletes, but what the director accomplishes by that is merely to fatten the annals of camp.

Spielberg isn’t enough of a mind to innovate in the service of a political topic. He wanted to make an entertaining movie about the Israeli response to Munich that would also challenge the audience, but doesn’t understand that his way of working poses structural impediments to the second prong of that intention. His way of working would be far more suited to a plot involving a personal act of revenge, which, unlike the issue of political reprisal, is entirely suited to the personal scope, and non-discursive approach, of action movies.

Action movies tend to be romances built around the heroes’ determined, successful acts of retributive violence, which are always morally justified or he wouldn’t be the hero. (Even where the action heroes are criminals, as in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) and Quentin Tarantino’s two Kill Bill movies (2003/04), they are justified to the extent they have been betrayed.) Spielberg appears to think that if a character says he has conflicting feelings about what he’s doing then a second layer has been laid down and the work is as a result naturalistically complex. The visual-kinetic excitement he generates when filming the assassinations, however, ensures that the movie remains in the realm of romance, though it lacks fully developed allegorical differences among the characters which might at least have expanded the discussion symbolically in a way fitting for romance.

Spielberg wants credit for the kind of complexity that could come only from a naturalistic approach to Avner’s mission and consequent breakdown, and seems to believe further that this one man’s reactions can lay open the significance of the entire mission. What he’s made instead is simply the tale of a knight who begins to question whether the wizard at whose behest he acts (i.e., Ephraim) is an emissary of light or of darkness. This narrative trope has spectacular impact in Brian DePalma’s Mission: Impossible (1996), in the sequence in which Tom Cruise figures out that his leader is, in fact, the bad guy. DePalma has Cruise saying one thing to Jon Voight while picturing another to himself, and the technique is revelatory and dizzying at the same time. It’s nonsense, of course, but I’m not sure my brain has ever whirred faster at the movies. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Returns (2005) uses the same trope, though with leaden heavy-handedness. (It begins with the superhero’s spiritual trek into a mountain sanctuary as if in homage to Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.) All the same, Nolan understands that this trope is, in essence, as artificial and exclamatory as a movie-poster tagline (“His mentor was the Enemy!”).

In Munich the question of whether Ephraim is a force of good or evil can’t be established objectively but only by Avner’s coming to a decision that he’s too upset and unnerved to reach. This makes the trope more complex only in a technical sense because the movie doesn’t present reasoned arguments for either position, just movieish emotionalism. Despite Spielberg’s pop handling of his subject, however, you can’t just relax and enjoy the movie as heroic romance because past a certain point you figure out that the more you enjoy the action set-piece assassinations the guiltier you’ll feel afterwards. Munich is serious, adult filmmaking at its most nugatory, and America will never produce political movies of any depth if we reward work of this caliber.

You can find more like this at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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About Alan Dale

  • Michael J. West

    Forgive me if this sounds flippant, Alan, but…what movies/performances did you LIKE this year?

  • Alan Dale

    Hey Michael,

    Thanks for the comment. There has been extraordinary unanimity among critics this year, which isolates an outlier like me even more than usual. To my mind, the critics, and the awards-givers, have been praising and honoring well-intentioned but mediocre movies on the basis of their subject matter rather than their artistry. Having seen the reputations of similar movies, such as The Life of Emile Zola (Best Picture 1937), Gentleman’s Agreement (Best Picture 1947), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Best Picture Nominee 1967), and Gandhi (Best Picture 1982), slip into deserved eclipse, I expect the same for the current bumper crop, with the possible exception of Capote.

    I realize this can make it seem as if I hate everything, or at least everything that other people like. To dispel that idea, I’ve posted below a list of my favorite movies and performances that appeared on U.S. screens in 2005, in descending order of preference. In addition, I’ve put an asterisk before the ones for which I published reviews. (Click here to find the individual reviews.) Note that these five categories comprise 15 different movie titles; the same five categories of Oscar nominations comprise 16 different titles. (I sometimes have more than five nominees, sometimes fewer, but the count is still 15 if you limit me to five in each category. Four titles (roughly 25%) appear on both my list and the Academy’s.)

    *Downfall Germany, d: Oliver Hirschbiegel
    *Grizzly Man US, d: Werner Herzog
    *Separate Lies UK, d: Julian Fellowes
    *Pride & Prejudice UK, d: Joe Wright
    Last Days US, d: Gus Van Sant
    *Nobody Knows Japan, d: Hirokazu Kore-eda

    *Tom Wilkinson Separate Lies
    *Romain Duris The Beat That My Heart Skipped
    Steve Carell The 40-Year-Old Virgin
    *Joaquin Phoenix Walk the Line

    *Joan Allen The Upside of Anger
    *Sarah Silverman Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic
    Felicity Huffman Transamerica
    *Emily Watson Separate Lies
    *Lisa Kudrow Happy Endings
    *Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice

    Supporting Actor
    Vince Vaughn Be Cool
    *Mickey Rourke Sin City
    *Frank Langella Good Night, and Good Luck.
    *Bruno Ganz Downfall
    *Matthew MacFadyen Pride & Prejudice
    *Rupert Everett Separate Lies

    Supporting Actress
    *Maggie Gyllenhaal Happy Endings
    *Linda Bassett Separate Lies
    *Reese Witherspoon Walk the Line
    *You Nobody Knows
    *Juliane Köhler Downfall

  • Hugh Fink


    Only an irreverent Hoosier could write such witty reviews. I’m really pleased to have discovered your blog.

    Also, I was sorry to hear the sad news about Spike– my parents spoke with your mother recently. Your Dad was among my favorite people. I”ve fond memories of him and was always impressed with his hip sense of humor.

    Meanwhile, hope all’s going well with you and your career as a critic/corporate tax attorney.

    All the best,

    Hugh Fink

  • Wakeup Man

    Dear Alan Dale:

    I had to stop reading your commentary when you asked the following questions:

    “Nor does he explain why oil companies wouldn’t prefer democratic ownership of the oil in Arab hands.”

    Sorry but the answers to these questions are obvious to anyone with an ounce of education in geography. Did you not learn any of the metaphors the movie was telling you? If the US military/oil industrial complex had any interest whatsoever in democracy why are they perpetually attempting to destabilize democracies in favor of military dictatorships that support their oil interests. Sorry Alan but one has to say wake the f up already and smell what’s going on. Now I use lower case “us” in quotes because the us government, military and corporations they are tied to are operating in the least interest of the American people. Why is the “us” trying to destabilize the democratically elected leader of Venezuela. Hint: it isn’t because he helps his poor and indigenous people. Why does the “us” support the military dictatorships of Myanmar, Qatar and others? Why did the “us” harbor the dictator of the philippines in Honolulu until his death where his wife Imelda still lives a lavish life with all her shoes? Why did the “us” help the taliban rise to power, install the Shah in Iran over a formerly democratically elected government?

    The reason is because freedom, democracy and justice is the LEAST thing these crooks are interested in. They are interested solely on who would be most “friendly” to their oil and profitable interests. I mean my wake up. This movie shows most viewers just how serious the situtation has gotten, how the military acts on behalf of the oil companies and how screwed the American people and the rest of the world are unless we wake up and do something about it.

    Don’t you remember Dalton in the movie screaming , “Corruption, corruption, corruption!”?

  • Alan Dale

    How is “geography” relevant? How does one “learn” from a “metaphor”?

    My problem with the movie, which is the same as my problem with your comment, is that it’s full of assumptions, slogans, and beliefs presented as information. The movie, at least, is suave enough to be insinuating. Your use of lower case “us,” by contrast, is just silly. Present your evidence in an orderly and cogent manner–and make sure it’s representative–and it will speak for itself.

    By the way, the U.S. short-sightedly helped the Taliban to rise to power in order to combat the anti-democratic forces of the Stalinist Soviet government.

  • Alan Dale

    PS. If you had continued reading (as one pretty much has an intellectual obligation to do when one disagrees with an article), you would have read in the next sentence, “This 18 March 2003 Cato Institute article does offer such an explanation, but the point isn’t what makes sense outside the movie’s framework, but what makes sense inside it.” Not only does this subsequent sentence provide a context (i.e., I’m talking primarily about narrative not geopolitics), but it provides a link to an article you might well agree with.

    Why has political debate in this country turned into hysterical venting?