Saturday, December 31, 2005
Politics Overpowering The Story Line
In the past couple of years I've seen two movies in which Chris Cooper had major roles - Silver City and Syriana. Those films had something else in common - the mistake of working so hard to advance a political message that the story line suffered.
Silver City, which you probably missed, mixes an interesting "whodunit" where a body floats to the surface of a lake as a political ad is being filmed. Instead of simply telling that story, the movie focuses heavily on criss-crossing plotlines surrounding Dickie Pilager, a less-than-intellectually-stellar candidate for Governor of Colorado being carefully managed by his handlers as he runs for office. Pilager is a parody of George W. Bush, and the movie's politics are about as subtle as the "play on words" represented by his surname. (However, even as they clearly disagree with his politics, the film makers depict Pilager as sincere in his beliefs.) Even the competent cast and strong performances can't save the film from itself.
Syriana has an even more impressive cast, at least by Hollywood A-list measures, and is in many ways more coherent. But again, to advance a political message and to "educate the audience" about the Middle East, the film incorporates a couple of unnecessary plotlines, one of which was not sufficiently developed to be convincing. You knew from the start that the story lines would ultimately intersect, but the ultimate intersection was surprisingly clumsy. In comparison to most political movies, the film did not condescend to the audience in order to advance its political message... which may be a problem in terms of its effort to create a deeper understanding of the issues. If you don't have at least some awareness of what the film is trying to convey, you are probably scratching your head in the manner of a woman a couple of rows back who, as the closing credits started to roll, asked "Did you get that?"
Both films take a very cynical view of the manner in which this nation is run, and the manner in which corporate interests can override the public good with little to no consequence. Or should I say, circumvent laws which interfere with the public good, as Syriana was rather explicit in its position that the government's collusion with business interests was perceived as advancing American interests. At most, the government will ask for a couple of sacrificial lambs who can be prosecuted in the name of good governance, as it otherwise blesses international business dealings and corporate mergers that increase the reach, wealth and power of America's corporations. Given a choice between two possible leaders for an oil-rich nation, one of whom is a regressive moron who will cater to American oil interests, and the other of whom is a progressive who wishes to transform the nation into a modern, progressive democracy, and to invest the nation's oil wealth in building that society, we pick the former. (It's easy enough to see a history where we supported thugs and dictators in the Middle East, and subverted democracy. But I'm not sure that the brand of progressive Arab leader depicted in Syriana can be found outside of fiction - and if such a leader exists, he's certainly not outspoken in his beliefs.)
Unfortunately, beyond its heavy-handed caricatures, there's truth to its depiction of the merger of corporate and government interests. True believers in our claimed effort to bring Democracy to the Middle East will probably hate the film. The film was rather explicit in its belief that the United States wants to keep the Middle East backward, dependent, and open for business with the U.S., and doesn't much care what happens to the region when the oil runs out.
The biggest surprise of Syriana? Alexander Siddig, who played the annoying Dr. Bashir on Star Trek Deep Space 9, really can act. (It's like seeing Jamie Foxx's outstanding performance in Ray.... Whodathunkit.)
In any event, had either film cut down on the amount of political baggage it chose to carry, either could have been quite enjoyable. And perhaps (metaphorically speaking) had they chosen carry-on luggage instead of overweight checked baggage, both films would have been in a better position to win converts to their respective causes.