I want America to watch a serious movie about guns and oil, spooks and money, geopolitics and fractured family life, in all their Tolstoyan interconnectedness. What I need, though, is for George Clooney to joke manfully about having the world’s coolest toys. I want a thriller where the establishing shots (“Beirut. Hezbollah Headquarters”) set up instructive scenes showing how the poor and dispossessed struggle in the Middle East, the wealthy enjoy their high life in Geneva, the powerful scheme for more power in Washington. What I need, though, is for Matt Damon to zoom through a crazy car chase, followed by sex with a startling woman. I want ambition and substance and contemporaneity and big ideas, and I want them released nationwide. What I need is for Jeffrey Wright to act everybody else off the screen.
I want–or am supposed to want–the big and very serious new movie with Clooney, Damon and Wright. But sometime during the second hour of watching CIA operative Clooney, bearded and plump, schlep around like Zero Mostel doing baggy-suit tragedy; sometime while seeing Damon behave no more colorfully than would his character, a market analyst, and witnessing Wright’s unrelieved confinement in the role of a corporation attorney–the kind of guy who would iron his underpants, after starching them–my personal cravings fell into conflict with the good of the electorate. I wanted Three Kings, The Bourne Identity, Angels in America, no matter how much the American people might need Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana.
Does an informed citizenry require this picture? Maybe. Television and radio do a poor job of analyzing the relationships among oil companies, lawyers, financiers, governments (at overt and covert levels) and the world’s Muslim population (whether militant or just hanging on). In fact, television and radio generally welcome such analysis as they would a tax audit from a hepatitis carrier. They prefer such unpleasantness to be handled by The Nation, a publication that goes unread by 99.93 percent of Americans. So all honor to Gaghan, his producers and Warner Bros. for taking on the job. If Gaghan (best known for the screenplay of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic) has overreached, then he’s failed the right way, through an excess of virtue. Syriana‘s flaws, presumably, would come from his faults as a first-time director.
Maybe. Inexperience might account for the stuttering rhythms of Syriana (new scenes keep breaking in before the old ones really get started), or the frequent use of images as mere accompaniments to dialogue, or the lapse of having Matt Damon and his movie wife, Amanda Peet, attend a funeral looking like the world’s best-rested mourners. Nonlethal errors, you might say, even though they blow across the screen with the monotony of a sandstorm. The bigger problem–for which inexperience cannot be an excuse–lies with the script itself.
Gaghan has focused the screenplay on characters who work as midlevel functionaries: the aging covert operations guy who’s too professional for his own good, the young market analyst who blunders his way into serving a Persian Gulf prince, the lawyer who’s assigned to search for illegalities in a huge corporate merger. In the course of Syriana, all of these men get squeezed by people with more power and a greater stake in the game–a premise that helps to structure the film and has the added merit of being plausible. Yet the contrasting ways in which these characters respond to pressure turn out to be irrelevant. Their choices have large personal consequences–destroying an individual career here, advancing one there–but they cannot affect the great oiled machine that Gaghan has constructed as his cinematic world. It rolls over everyone without so much as a cough in the carburetor.
This is neither realism nor tragedy. It’s cynicism, which exposes itself most nakedly in Damon’s addresses to the Arab characters, and in Gaghan’s own portrayal of them.
Damon first. In speeches that pointedly dispense with all courtesy, his character castigates the Persian Gulf princes for arrogance, incompetence, addiction to luxury and indifference to work. Damon bellows these charges straight into the camera–and in the movies, energy doesn’t lie. He’s thrilling the crowd (a presumably non-Islamic audience) by telling off the Arab elite on their behalf. Although Gaghan, in a gesture toward fairness, has invented one good Arab prince (Alexander Siddig), whose principles are so wholesome that Sesame Street could teach them, I think he expects most viewers to recognize Damon’s angry tune and to hum along with it.
When Gaghan turns from the elite to Islam’s masses, he uses no mouthpiece. Instead, he directly sums up untold millions in the character of a Pakistani guest worker (Mazhar Munir), who follows a predictable route from the unemployment line to a terrorist-spawning Islamic school. Like the other characters, he is mere fuel for Gaghan’s world-machine; but unlike them, he isn’t given even the illusion of choice. His course is set from the moment he comes on screen–which makes nonsense of the pretty talk of democracy that you hear from Damon and his prince.
In this way, Syriana spreads before you a grand political vista, only to deny the possibility of political agency. In the film’s terms, the sole effective sphere of action is the family–and, more specifically, the father-son relationship. This, too, is a structural element of the screenplay, which sets up contrasts among all the characters. But just as Syriana misses the fun of a good thriller, so too does it fall short as family drama.
Put it this way: At the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy filled the father’s hand with a soaking diaper. In Syriana, unfortunately, we don’t get that much juice.
“I’m strong–strong like Frederick Douglass,” says 12-year-old Richard early in The Boys of Baraka. His boast, of course, is more wish than description. Like the other young subjects of this documentary (opening November 30 at New York’s Film Forum), Richard came before the camera as a hard-pressed kid from Baltimore’s crumbling, chaotic public schools. People said he was “at risk”–a phrase that, for one boy in the film, meant he’d been suspended eight times in the past year, and for another that he had a junkie mother and a mean streak. For Richard it meant that he was reading at second-grade level, and that his father was doing thirteen and a half years in prison.
The solution that was proposed and then recorded in fascinating, ultimately devastating, detail by filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady was for Richard to develop his hoped-for strength in the Kenya bush as a student at the privately run Baraka School. Each year, a Baltimore foundation recruited twenty boys for this program, which took them from a neighborhood that was “all about drugs” (as Richard said) and transported them to a place of natural beauty near a village where black people lived in dignity and peace. Some of the boys didn’t like it at first: Schoolwork was demanding, discipline strict and television nonexistent. And though the families back home were fractured, the boys still missed them. By the end of the first year, though, these students had gained new mastery of themselves (as symbolized by a hike up Mount Kenya) and were looking forward to the next term, which was supposed to leave them ready for high school.
Up to this point, The Boys of Baraka keeps threatening to become a motivational film, or (worse still) a promotion piece for this private initiative. But Ewing and Grady are marathon-runner documentarians–the type who are committed to living with their subjects for months and years, and to discovering the film’s content and shape along the way. Through perseverance and honesty, they recorded a terrible reversal in the expected story, then went on to show how the boys coped with it. Some did unexpectedly well; and some, for all their wishful boasting, did not. Either way, you ache for these kids, who’d already had enough disappointment for a lifetime.
In a tent set up in the baking sun, in a place beyond reach of the Constitution, a tribunal judges the supposed enemies of America, then hands them to the National Guard for cruel and unusual treatment. From this bare description, suitable for the TV Guide listing that the film will never have, you might suppose Punishment Park to be a picture about the present “war on terror.” When I add that the lighting is harsh and the camera handheld, you might further imagine that the footage is documentary, snatched from today’s awful reality.
You would be wrong on both counts. Newly released on DVD by New Yorker Films, Punishment Park is in fact a document of sorts, but from 1971. Its appearance of being raw reportage is an illusion, meticulously created by writer-director Peter Watkins.
In the depths of the Nixon era, Watkins set out to make a fiction film set in an America just slightly worse than reality. Defendants in political trials would be bound, gagged and dragged out of court, as was Bobby Seale in Chicago; young antiwar activists, or student bystanders, would be shot to death, as they were at Kent State and Jackson State; and the McCarran Act would be in force, giving the federal government the potential to suppress dissent with extraordinary power. The only exaggeration, in Watkins’s fake documentary, was that the government would openly use this power. Those accused of sedition–a mixed crew of black nationalists and Black Panthers, draft resisters, New Left organizers, feminist songwriters, hippie poets and Chicano activists–would be removed from the court system, examined before a tribunal and then offered a choice of sentence: a long term in a federal penitentiary or three days’ service in a training exercise for police and military forces. Of course, everyone would choose the latter sentence, not knowing that the delicately named Punishment Park was in fact an immense desert where convicts were hunted down in a game without rules.
You will not be surprised to learn that Punishment Park quickly vanished upon its initial release. Now that New Yorker Films has brought it back from oblivion, you might find it compelling for three reasons. The first is its absolute accuracy about the political divisions of the time–an effect Watkins achieved through the careful casting of nonprofessionals in all the roles, as dissidents, tribunal members and cops. The performers’ improvised speeches (or should I say shouting matches?) reflected their actual beliefs. The second thing that’s compelling about the film is Watkins’s astounding mimicry of television news coverage and BBC special reports. Few people had used this strategy before him; none since have done it better.
The third reason for watching Punishment Park today? It’s called Guantánamo, or Abu Ghraib, or names yet unknown to us. It took thirty-four years, but the near future of Watkins’s movie has now become our present.