Syriana, na-na-na-na

This movie’s packing them in at the Varsity theatre in Toronto. Sold-out shows on the weekend told the ALLDERBLOB that folks really want to hear about crooked oil companies, backroom CIA dealings, and the stuff that fuels Islamic fanaticicm. Add George Clooney in a beard (oy, veh!) and Matt Damon in a shirt and tie, and Hollywood’s done it again! Hooray!

Is it worth mentioning the parking lot under the Manulife centre was full, or that 20 minutes of mind-numbing car ads preceded this expose of the depradations of the oil industry? Oh, sure, the movie website has a link to the website “Oil Change: a campaign to reduce our dependence on oil,” but talk is cheap. Oil change is cheap. Oil, as you know, is cheap. What is the real value, after all, of 12 full-time labourers working for a year (the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil)? Gosh, is $60 enough, or should it really be $120? Maybe it should be $1200? Listen, if I give 12 men a hundred dollars each, shouldn’t that mean they will work full time for me for a year?

It gives nothing away to point out how the “crisis” of Syriana, which is that a small middle eastern emirate’s efforts to join the enlightened liberal democracies of the west is snuffed out by conniving aging hipster doofuses in D.C. and Texas, not to mention Beijing, is not the real crisis. The crisis in this movie is in fact that it doesn’t matter if the little kingdom can set itself up in an alliance with Iran to shorten its pipeline of oil to the west, and shore up its profits. It doesn’t matter if the gun we see in act one does or does not go off in act three. It misses the point to talk about how the oppression of the working class drives folks into the hands of fanatics (oh, Hollywood, if only it were so simple: what used to be the commie threat is now replaced by the threat of jihad).

The crisis of crisis, to use Tony Fry’s term, is that our actions are too late:

The truth of the crisis is a ‘crisis of crisis’ in so far as crisis is concealed by the image of crisis. It is presented as being objectified in the world rather than in and of us – fundamentally, causally, we are the crisis!

See, this is the real story of Syriana: unless and until we correct the central addiction of western liberal democracy, that central addiction that we, just as surely as an Afgani opium cartel or a Colombian cocaine smuggler, are importing to those who should know better: the addiction to the automobile; we have met the enemy and he is us.

But most folks in the theatre, cheering as Clooney revs the global warming engine of his Range Rover to speed over the dunes to intercept the would-be king on his way to meet his destiny, missed this meaning. They left hoping for a better world, one in which oil from small Middle East emirates can reach us quicker, where naive derivatives traders get back together with their wives after all, and where the youthful oilpatch workers from Pakistan aren’t driven into the arms of fanatics. A world where mothers get to come live in the worker’s housing, and fathers get new shoes. Or something.

You could tell people were thinking this, because of the way they jingled their car keys on the way out of the theatre.

Zoom zoom? Nah. More like Creep creep.

One Response to “Syriana, na-na-na-na”



    from James Howard Kunstler, another review of Syriana:

    Ran in the Albany Times Union (New York State)

    The Syriana Syndrome

    By Jim Kunstler

    Anyone who sees Syriana, the new George Clooney movie about political hugger-mugger in a Middle East oil kingdom, will not come away with an enhanced understanding of the global oil predicament.
    They’ll see a dark, brooding, and impressively restrained story with no car chases, few explosions, and barely a bullet flying. They’ll sense several layers of intense paranoia that seem to suggest almost no one in authority here in America can be trusted about anything. They’ll see a foreign culture depicted as (to crib a phrase from Winston Churchill) a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a hairball.

    In the movie’s most terrifying scene, they’ll see George Cloony’s character, Bob, a washed-up CIA agent, receive an extremely severe manicure, so to speak, from an al Qaeda type sadist.

    But they won’t get any clear ideas about the implications of our sick dependency on Middle Eastern oil for life in United States. In fact, one of the unfortunate results of this otherwise not-stupid movie, is that it will cater to exactly the kind of paranoid fantasies that will be least helpful for Americans facing a bewildering future and needing desperately to take measured collective action to preserve living standards. Sure, there is plenty of greed and bad faith out there in the big leagues of geopolitics and corporate life. But the global energy predicament is foremost a geological problem.

    Despite the claims of those who believe that the Earth has a creamy nougat center of oil, the supply of this critical resource is actually finite, and we are at very dicey moment in our brief history with it. There is good reason to believe that the world is now passing over the tippy-top of its all-time maximum peak oil production and starting down the gruesome slope of irreversible depletion. Meanwhile, discovery of new oil has been practically nil in the 21st century, and you can’t produce oil that hasn’t been discovered. The shorthand for this conundrum is Peak Oil, a subject lately growing in the public’s awareness.

    The great problem, therefore, is not that we are immediately running out of oil, because at peak there will still be a lot left. The problem is that the first half was the lightest, sweetest crude in the easiest-to-reach places, including Texas. It was cheap to get and refine. The remaining half is mostly harder-to-refine heavy, sour crude, or tar sands, or oil shales (which aren’t even composed of oil, by the way, but of an uncooked organic precursor called kerogen), and these things can now only be gotten in forbidding arctic terrains, Amazonian jungles, deep under the sea, or in unfriendly countries. The remaining oil is distributed inequitably around the world. More than two-thirds belongs to the nations of the Middle East. It does not come cheap, either in monetary terms or in geopolitical costs.
    Syriana is about some of those geopolitical costs. The movie was loosely based on Robert Baer’s gripping 2004 account, Sleeping With the Devil, of his career as a CIA agent operating in Saudi Arabia, and much of the book is devoted to the stupendous corruption, greed, and incompetence of the al Saud royal family – as well as the behind-the-scenes string-pulling by the Anglo-American interests scheming relentlessly to do what’s necessary to keep the oil flowing.

    Flowing into American gas tanks, that is. And that is the more precise context of the problem we face over Peak Oil: we have poured our post-war national wealth into an easy motoring suburban sprawl living arrangement that cannot possibly operate without continued reliable supplies of cheap oil. Perhaps even worse, our economy has insidiously shifted from manufacturing to sprawl-building (otherwise known as the housing bubble). Having made such massive misinvestments in the infrastructure for a way of life with no future, we are trapped in a deadly psychology of previous investment which prevents us from even thinking we can do things differently.

    This was all neatly encapsulated by the remark widely attributed to Vice-president Dick Cheney that “the American way of life is non-negotiable.” Whatever you think of the remark, it is probably an accurate representation of how most Americans feel – that we are entitled to 3500 square foot houses, all the cheap gasoline we can burn, and supernaturally easy credit because we hold the torch of freedom as an example to the world.
    Thus, we are dismayed when other people in the world scoff at our torch-bearing while they blow up our soldiers, because they know – as the characters in Syriana know deep down somewhere – that it’s all basically about our desperate addiction to their oil. It would be unfortunate if our dismay turned into unbridled wrath, because that kind of political rage is just as likely to turn inward.

    There is a whole set of intelligent responses to America’s oil predicament that we ought to be talking about now. These range from restoring the nation’s passenger rail system, to supporting local agriculture in earnest, to rebuilding local networks of retail trade and economic interdependency for the time ahead when the Big Boxes die of oil starvation, to setting legal limits on new suburban sprawl. These are the kind of things that will help us through the Long Emergency of the post-cheap-oil world we are entering. The temptations of paranoia will only make things worse.

    James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (Atlantic Monthly Press). He was movie critic for the Albany Knickerbocker News in 1973 – 1974.

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