by Bob Anemone
Written for Liberal Arts Seminar: Film & Politics (LARTS 490, Fall 2011)
There is an inherent delight in watching a film about government corruption or deception; people love to feel as though they are morally superior to whatever institution they are seeing portrayed on screen. A balance must be struck, however, because no one wants to feel hopeless about his or her government. A common theme in political films is a system that inherently works but is flawed; the viewer gains great satisfaction from seeing responsible individuals put in their place and the system returned to some kind of order. Costa-Gavras’s Missing and Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana both present us with variations on this theme, but with a less optimistic view of their respective governments. As a result, the stories must be treated very carefully and told in such a way as to draw viewers in rather than alienate them. Both movies do this with some success, but in very different ways. Missing follows one man’s personal transformation from a right-wing businessman into a believer of a left-wing interpretation of the 1973 coup in Chile and its aftermath under the guise of a detective story, while Syriana tells four distinct but interwoven stories in a convoluted narrative in order to convey the complications, effects, and interconnectedness of a modern, globalized world.
Missing introduces us to Ed Horman (played by Jack Lemmon), an average, conservative, generally likeable businessman who goes to Chile to join his daughter-in-law Beth in the search for his missing son Charlie. The basic framework of the film is structured like a classic detective story: it follows a limited group of characters as they search for evidence in a missing-person case. This plotline draws the viewers into their plight as we discover evidence alongside them and begin to make the same connections they do. The film spends some time reminding us just how lost we are, giving us flashbacks that turn out to be imagination (for example, the scene when Charlie and Beth’s neighbors are describing when he was taken and they disagree on details while the camera visualizes their different stories). This technique serves to help us connect even more with Ed: while he is not by any means unintelligent, he is lost in this country. He does not speak the language, he does not fully understand the culture, and his confidence in the order of things upon arriving is slowly broken down as he begins to recognize his own naiveté. While he is initially suspicious of Beth’s politics and attitudes towards both the Chilean and American governments, her role as his guide and translator through the country provides her with a sense of reliability. As other characters (namely Terry and David) back up more of her stories, he begins to trust her more.
Along with the increase in Beth’s reliability comes a decrease in the government’s. We are presented with two different types of evidence for both of these shifts: practical evidence in the form of documents, interviews, and close inference of situations, and emotional evidence that manifests itself in the presentation of horrifying images of war and the reactions of different characters to those images. A pivotal moment for Ed comes when they visit the Stadium and he realizes there are no entry/exit forms for Frank Teruggi, who is also missing, even though the government claims to have released him (this suspicion is confirmed and the emotional intensity heightened later on when they come across his dead body in a morgue). From this point on, Ed is increasingly wary, aligning himself more and more with Beth’s views until, by the end, he espouses a liberal interpretation of the coup as vehemently as she.
This method of storytelling is very effective. We are introduced a character who we like and presumably connect with, and are drawn into his situation by being asked to search for evidence alongside him. Then, we watch as this evidence transforms his viewpoints until he goes from being apathetic to the politics of the movie to being a chief advocate for them. By connecting us so personally with this one story, Gavras is able to manipulate his viewers into being deeply suspicious of the American government’s role in the 1973 Chilean coup.
Syriana takes a different strategy altogether. The film is presented as an interlocking web of distinct personal, public, and political stories that are connected in both literal and thematic ways. It is an exploration of the ramifications of economic and political globalization, the potential liberalization of the Arab world, and the power and significance of oil in modern politics. The movie goes to great lengths to demonstrate that these issues are not just public political issues but are deeply affected by the personal lives of the men and women in power. In setting up his film in this manner, Gaghan is trying to display the incredible complications of a global economy and political system. He cross-weaves different stories and both the very intimate and the incredibly public aspects of both, examining the effects of each story on another, the private lives of characters on their public decisions, and the implications of every action on the whole. In doing so, he is both celebrating and condemning capitalism; his film serves to demonstrate that nothing is simple in today’s society and every decision has consequences that can change the world.
In the four major stories presented—Bob Barnes’s journey, Bennett Holiday’s involvement in the Connex-Killeen merger, the involvement of the young Pakistani boys in the Madrasse, and the relationship between Prince Nasir and Bryan Woodman—oil is the common denominator. All four stories all intersect at major points of the film, often with drastic political consequences. The film also explores, however, how the personal lives of the characters shape the decisions they make that, in turn, shape the politics of the story. Bob Barnes is told that if the Nasir job goes well, he can have “any desk he wants” in Washington. He is falling out of favor with the CIA due to his complicated opinions on Iran, and his son wants very much to go back to the U.S. and lead a “normal” life. Bob takes the Nasir assignment hoping for a way out. Once things go wrong and he is framed as a rogue agent, he resolves, for the first time, to look into the motivations behind his assignment so that he can figure out who is after him. In doing so he uncovers the truth: Nasir is politically and morally agreeable but financially dangerous. He is killed while trying to warn the Prince of the assassination plot. Bennett Holiday’s tumultuous relationship with his father leads to his setting up his boss Sydney Hewitt, a man who was becoming his mentor and father figure, as the second fall guy to make the Connex-Killeen deal go through. The two Pakistani boys, after losing their jobs, go to the Madrasse, seduced by the promise of food and culture, and are quickly swept up into a terrorist organization. Bryan Woodman is able to make connections to Prince Nasir as a result of the death of his son, and as his family is torn apart by the tragedy he thrusts himself further into his work. Many, most of all his wife, are alienated from him because they feel he is capitalizing on the death of his son.
Syriana goes to great lengths to show the positives and negatives of an interconnected modern world, and focuses on the potentially huge effects of individual motivations on a global system. We are presented with a less-than-optimistic view of our own government; Bryan Woodman (with whom we sympathize) is trying to help Prince Nasir find a way to make his country economically and politically competitive in the modern market and not squander the potential of having such vast oil fields under his control, but Bob Barnes is sent by the CIA to assassinate the Prince because an actual liberalization of a Middle Eastern emirate with rich oil fields would be economically disastrous for the U.S. Bennett Holiday proves with the Connex-Killeen merger that even the most corrupt deals can pass through the judicial department if they are financially lucrative enough; as a result of Connex’s laying off workers in the middle East, the two young Pakistani boys end up studying at a Madrasse where they fall in with a terrorist group and, ironically, end up bombing a new Connex-Killeen oil tanker. Despite its pessimism, however, the film is able to captivate an audience by trying to present an objective picture of a world where anything, small or large, can have an effect on the convoluted global system in which it exists, and by exploring the ramifications of a group of seemingly unrelated events as they unfold.
Missing and Syriana use wildly different strategies to tell stories about government corruption and deception. Yet both types of storytelling serve their own purpose. In Missing, Gavras is trying to win an audience over to a certain interpretation of a very specific event. To do so, he has us follow a character we can connect with as that character discovers evidence to change his political views until they match those of the film. Syriana is a close examination of the profound interconnectedness of the modern world, and so Gagher presents us with a complicated narrative made up of multiple stories in which every piece has a noticeable effect on the whole. Both films are carefully calculated to leave us with a less-than-optimistic interpretation of our own government, while still keeping us engaged in their narrative.
Missing. Dir. Costa-Gavras. By Costa-Gavras, Thomas Hauser, Donald Stewart. Perf. Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Mayron. Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 1982.
Syriana. Dir. Stephen Gaghan. By Eric Roth. Perf. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005.