December 15, 2005
Cowboys & Indians
One of the bizarre effects of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 is better holiday movies. I realize that sounds coarse and facile at the same time, but it's demonstrably true.
The major Christmas releases in the 2000 holiday season -- the year before Sept. 11 -- were "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Red Planet," "Unbreakable," "Dracula 2000" and "Miss Congeniality."
Not a serious, political picture in the bunch, though in "Miss Congeniality" Sandra Bullock did play an FBI agent.
Now look at what's come out this season, amid the standard fluff: First there was "Jarhead," about an American soldier in the first Persian Gulf War. Next was "Good Night and Good Luck," about newsman Edward R. Murrow's confrontation with red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
And then came "Syriana," and the soon-to-released "Munich."
Last week I saw those last two, the latest movies to tackle the issues that Sept. 11 forced us to confront: terrorism, oil, Islam, the Middle East and religious fundamentalism.
One thing that stands out is this: Hollywood is making Westerns again, but this time, the Indians are Arab.
I'm not talking about the early Hollywood Indian -- a cartoon bad guy or buffoon who spoke pigeon English and was played by a white guy.
I mean the latter-day Indians of film -- the more politically correct, primitively honorable "Native Americans." The ones who resist when the misguided "settlers" prove ignorant of native ways or, worse, when the newcomers become greedy or resort to violence.
With adjustments for nuance and modernity, these themes play out like clockwork in "Syriana." In this film, the flawed Westerners are the film's primary movers -- whether government officials, CIA spooks or oil execs. They wrestle with the moral dilemmas that our suicidal energy policy raises. They worry about the political and human costs; they second-guess their actions; they call their Arab counterparts on the carpet for their own shortsightedness.
The Arabs, for their part, react: They fight back when the CIA encroaches on their turf; they turn to terror when oil company policies impoverish them; they preach against a West that interferes with their lives.
Of course it's true that corporations, in tandem with our government and corrupt Arab regimes, have often acted despicably to slake our petroleum thirst. But there is something simplistic and misleading about heaping scorn on oilmen, lawyers, politicians and operatives, but making a murderous Arab (the mullahs, the suicide bombers, the torturer) look perpetually like a victim. We have ideology, desire, goals and misgivings; they react. We are the cowboys out to settle their West; they are the Indians.
I don't buy it.
Director-writer Stephen Gaghan flays open the ideology and greed that underlay much of our presence in the Mideast, but he never even mentions troubling aspects of Islamic ideology and tribal tradition that were developing long before petrol was king.
The plot of "Syriana" is being hyped as purposefully complex and opaque -- but it ignores an ideological strain of Islam that seeks the destruction of opposing values and people as incompatible and threatening to one interpretation of Quranic truth. The Arabs who plan and perpetrate these acts are more often than not homicidal fascists, but in "Syriana" they are all just reacting to Western predation. The cowboys have ideology and depth and complexity; the Indians just suffer and try to defend themselves.
Was Gaghan trying to make, say, 1950's Western "Broken Arrow," where Apaches rise up against encroaching whites, using the tableau of oil instead of land? If that's the case, it's morally obtuse. The Indians truly were victimized. We invaded their lands, and destroyed them with our guns, germs and steel.
Those who perpetrate terrorism are not innocent -- even if they have sometimes been victims. It's true that Western policies often exacerbate or even incite Islamic fundamentalism. But there is also a strain of Islamic fundamentalist driven by a sick religious ideology, as demented as that of the Crusaders. They are one-starred Sneetches who kill no-star Sneetches in the name of the Great Sneetch. Nazis killed to establish their superiority over non-Nazis. Islamic extremists kill primarily for that reason.
By being hooked on oil we supply them with money. Through asinine policies and actions, we supply them with fertile persuasion for recruitment. But our wrongs and our stupidities don't negate the responsibility of those who must endure them. Radical Islamists espouse and are prey to an ideology rooted in death and destruction of the Other. For this film not to dramatize -- or even recognize -- this in some way left me flabbergasted.
Interestingly, "Syriana" is based on the book, "See No Evil" (Three Rivers, 2002) by ex-CIA agent Robert Baer. Baer goes into great detail on how much Mideast terror is the work of Iranian mullahs whose ideological enmity to the West has deep theological roots -- a fact that "Syriana," for all its vaunted complexity, avoids.
To be fair, Gaghan has made a serious, perhaps even courageous, effort to wrestle with contemporary issues. But Arab intransigence and irredentism, Islamic fundamentalism, religious and national fascism, are as much a part of the Middle East muck as Western predations.
Can a single movie fairly dramatize all of this? Sure, and one day they'll make the cowboys gay.