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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006
Freedom going up in flames
Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler of the United States Marine Corps was a genuine war hero. His many military decorations included two Medals of Honor, one for leading the assault on Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914, and the other for "pacifying" Haiti in 1915.
Yet Butler had a change in heart after serving in these and other colonial campaigns. Tired of being "a muscle man for big business," he retired from active duty in 1931 and four years later published a book titled "War Is a Racket," in which he stated his views clearly: "A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small 'inside' group knows what it's about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war, a few people make huge fortunes."
Two new films -- Hollywood productions, no less -- serve to illuminate the continuing relevance of Butler's insight, as applied to modern U.S. foreign policy. The political thriller "Syriana," directed by Stephen Gaghan (screenwriter of "Traffic"), looks at "the benefit of the few," namely the oil companies, sheiks and Washington insiders who profit from the cynical manipulation of Middle Eastern politics. On the other side of the coin is the apolitical war movie "Jarhead," directed by Sam Mendes ("American Beauty"), which covers "the expense of the many" -- the grunts who served frontline during the 1991 Gulf War.
The presence of notable lefties George Clooney and Matt Damon in the cast of "Syriana" may seem to highlight its political leanings, and, truth be told, if you think the oil industry and CIA are full of nothing but decent, honorable men serving the common good, you won't like this film. But then again, if your reception is that poor, a good kick might help.
Director Gaghan attempts to perform the same trick he did in "Traffic," namely, to illustrate the effects of state policy on an individual level. While "Traffic" often slipped into hyperbole -- remember the politician's daughter who went from weed dilettante to crack whore overnight? -- "Syriana" never really requires us to suspend our disbelief, and that's the scary part. CIA agents getting set up to take the fall for illegal black ops? Jobless young Muslims being told that radical Islam is the solution? This is stuff that happens daily.
The story structure of "Syriana" echoes "Traffic" as well, with a number of disparate strands spun from the same theme. We first meet Bob Barnes (Clooney) on a mission in Tehran; he's a CIA agent who's posing as an arms dealer to infiltrate terrorist networks. Back in Texas and Washington, D.C., we learn of the shady dealings of the newly merged oil behemoth, Connex-Killen. Shut out of drilling rights in a Gulf emirate by the Chinese, the company has scored new oil fields in Kazakhstan, the details of which they'd prefer not to fall under scrutiny. To achieve this, Connex executive Jimmy Pope (cinema's favorite Texan, Chris Cooper) hires a Washington legal firm to speed things through the regulatory process; buttoned-up attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) promises them "the illusion of diligence."
Meanwhile, energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Damon) joins forces with the progressive Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) of the aforementioned emirate. Nasir is opposed to American political pressure, so he plots against his decadent and malleable younger brother, Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha), whom the Americans are pushing to inherit the throne.
If you think that's complicated, things are just getting started. Many more fractals spiral out from here: assassinations; political double-crosses; hostage-taking; machinations by Hezbollah and the Committee to Liberate Iran; business execs proclaiming the merits of corruption; and faceless CIA operatives tracking unwitting targets with their Predator drones and Hellfire missiles. We even get the view from the street, with a young, downtrodden Pakistani day-laborer in Dubai (Mazhar Munir) becoming radicalized in an Islamic school and slowly urged onto the path of a suicide bomber. His former employer? Connex. His target? Connex.
All this is part of a hypertext approach that will likely make "Syriana" one of the more complex films you'll see this year. But, of course, the world that it so effectively depicts is also deliberately complicated. The few who benefit from controlling oil fields, or the accompanying huge consulting fees or lobbyists' contributions, want to make sure that no one can connect the dots.
You don't really have to understand all of "Syriana" to get its point. What comes into clear focus is a miasma of corruption and amoral greed, where idealists are swiftly laughed out of the room -- or whacked, if it comes to that. One thoroughly disillusioned-and-proud-of-it Connex exec sums it up when he asks, "What is a sovereign nation but a collective of greed run by one individual?"
* * *
Where "Syriana" is adamant in showing that no action in the Middle East -- be it a "free" election or an arms deal or a car bomb -- can be detached from the struggle for control of energy resources, "Jarhead" manages to go a whole two hours without once saying the words "Blood for oil." That seems, however, to be the point. Based on a memoir by Anthony Swofford on his experiences in the U.S. Marines during the first Gulf War, "Jarhead" offers a view of day-to-day life amid America's legions, and there isn't a Smedley Butler to be found. "F**k politics," says one Marine, played by Peter Saarsgard. "All the rest is bullshit."
Indeed, "Jarhead" often plays like a frat-house comedy in the desert. Marines brand each other or shoot camels for fun, the masturbation jokes are endless. They make crude gestures at veiled Saudi women ("Tha' bitch wanted me!"), chug pure alcohol and gripe about how they don't get to kill anyone. This may be a de-mythification of life among the troops, but it wears thin quickly.
"Jarhead" follows one Marine named Swoff (Jake Gyllenhall of "Brokeback Mountain") through his experiences in boot camp, his deployment to the Saudi border after Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990 and his brief taste of war when the U.S. forces ousted the Iraqis in the five-day "Desert Storm" campaign.
The central irony here involves how the Marines were whipped up to a fever pitch for battle, and then deployed in a situation where they had nothing to do but wait for months in the desert. Air power and missiles did the hard work of smashing Hussein's army, and the U.S. forces suffered fewer combat casualties than Washington, D.C., does in a year of handgun crime.
"Jarhead" is welcome as a look at the Gulf War, given that so few films have dared to explore at the subject. But there's a reason for this: The one-sidedness of the battles and the resulting lack of drama make it hard to find obvious cinema in the situation. "Jarhead" focuses on the boredom of sitting in the desert -- hydrating, jacking off, digging latrines and hydrating some more -- but fails to convince that there's a story there. The real story, surely, lies in the "Syriana"-like machinations that led the U.S. to commit its forces to the sacred principle of defending "democracy" -- in a feudal kingdom -- and protecting the sanctity of national borders -- mere months after it unilaterally violated them by invading Panama to clean up a rogue dictator who'd been on the CIA payroll.
Director Mendes tries to compensate for the futility of the story through other means. He allows gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins (a regular collaborator with the Coen brothers) to bring an artistic, almost poetic touch to the imagery that's often at odds with the material. There's a certain surreal vibe that creeps in when desert vistas of timeless beauty and the hallucinatory warscapes of Desert Storm coincide with the crude jokiness of the troops.
"Jarhead" is postmodern enough to be a war movie that quotes war movies. Still, the boot-camp scenes won't replace the revelatory nature of the ones in Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," and showing the boys hooting and hollering while watching "Apocalypse Now" on video only serves to suggest an unflattering comparison. There's a scene where a chopper flies by playing The Doors, and one grunt groans, "Vietnam music." But it's unlikely the Gulf War, with its victory by remote control, will ever capture the public imagination to the same degree.
The film's one truly classic moment comes when the Marines advance through the burning oil fields that Hussein's soldiers had torched. The desert turns black and wet as oil rains from the sky and everything's tinted in an orange glow of flames. The Marines get covered in muck, their eyes burning, their bodies sticky, their fox holes pools of the toxic black ooze. This is the Smedley Butler moment, where the reason behind the conflict become inescapably clear.