December 14, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Unserious Syriana

How hopeless is Hollywood? More than four years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, America's movie moguls seem to have not a clue about who attacked us or why, or what sort of war we're fighting. 

It's not that the filmmakers haven't tried to figure it out.  They just seem to be stuck on … well, not stupid maybe but on the Vietnam era idée fixe that whenever we meet the enemy, he must turn out to be us.

The most ambitious attempt to cinematically treat the new global struggle is Syriana, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon. I attended a private screening in Washington, the kind of event publicists stage to give the impression a movie is being taken seriously by “the policy community.”

Following the screening, I participated in a panel discussion along with Syriana writer/director Stephen Gaghan and former CIA operative Bob Baer, the inspiration for the Clooney character. Others panelists, from both sides of the political spectrum, made common cause on one point: That America's increasing dependence on oil from parts of the world where hatred of America is preached is an enormous problem. (The coalition most effectively addressing this issue is

But Syriana makes no attempt to grapple with the distressing fact that every time we fill our cars we fund those plotting to murder us. 

Instead, Gaghan's movie focuses on “politically correct” villains– most of them Americans, in particular the now familiar white businessmen oozing greed and malevolence. U.S. government officials are toadies of the corporate titans. A “Committee for the Liberation of Iran” is comprised of hypocrites interested only in money and power.

The film's most sympathetic treatment is reserved for – can you guess? — terrorists. Clooney's world-weary CIA agent is advised to get Hezbollah's “clearance” before moving back to Beirut. He requests and receives it from a tough but gentle terrorist leader who can be counted on – as Americans can not – to keep his world.

No one mentions that Hezbollah is second only to al-Qaeda in number of Americans slaughtered. Nor is there any hint that Hezbollah is financed by oil-rich Iranian mullahs who for more than a quarter of a century have pledged “Death to America!” 

All this is especially disappointing because Gaghan does not seem like a Hollywood hothead/airhead in the Michael Moore mold. He seems like an intelligent guy who intended to make a serious film about an immensely consequential issue. On the panel, he claimed he had no political agenda and hates “agit-prop” posing as art.  He has spent quite a bit of time traveling in the Middle East. 

He lauded Paul Berman, author of “Terror and Liberalism,” among the most insightful analyses written on the Islamist totalitarian threat. He even quoted Sayyid Qutb, the ideological godfather of the movement that has killed innocents in New York, Madrid, London, Amman and so many other places.

But none of this emerges in Gaghan's motion picture. Instead, toward the end of Syriana, a handsome, young Pakistani is on his way to suicide-bomb an oil tanker. Matt Damon's character is advising a good Arab prince (unlike his brother, he hasn't been corrupted by Americans). The Clooney character is rushing to warn the good prince that the CIA plans to assassinate him at the behest of those corrupt Americans. 

In The New Republic, film critic Stanley Kauffmann enthuses that Syriana “impresses” because it is “so seemingly privy to inside stuff – about the way the Middle East is being manipulated behind our backs and over our heads.” 

The same day I read that review I opened the newspaper to see that a Saudi prince had donated $40 million to Harvard and Georgetown to “expand their Islamic studies programs.”  You might recall that Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud also tried to donate $10 million to New York just after 9/11/01. Then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani turned him down because Alwaleed also urged the United States to “reexamine” its Middle East policies. 

“[A] lot of otherwise intelligent people have decided, a priori, that all the big problems around the world stem from America. Even the problems that don't,” wrote Paul Berman.

He also has written: “The question of how a free society can endure for more than a little while is one of the oldest and most perplexing in the history of political philosophy.” 

Director/writer Stephen Gaghan either missed those passages or decided such questions are uninteresting. Which leads me to believe that Hollywood is indeed utterly hopeless.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

Read the Spanish translation.



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