Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


What is the best time to see a movie? At the earliest moment possible, of course. Ideally, one would see every new movie in the first days of its release, if not actually before its release. But if you can’t be among the first to see a movie, well, then it’s a nice consolation to see it at a moment that makes the movie newly relevant.

For instance, when I finally got the chance to see Syriana (it only opened in Ireland in the past couple of weeks), it coincided with events that made it feel even fresher than when it first opened. A couple of them, fairly obviously, are the ongoing international preoccupation with Iran and the third anniversary of the American-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq. Another, less obviously, is the sudden death of Slobodan Milosevic.

The fact that much of the movie takes place in the Middle East and features early scenes set in Tehran makes the movie feel extremely up-to-date. What is odd, however, is that despite its “blood for oil” theme, Iraq is barely mentioned, even though the film is clearly set in the post-9/11 world. In my review of the movie, I allowed that the movie is propaganda but not rank propaganda. By that I meant that the movie, although a work of fiction, clearly means to influence the opinions and perceptions of the viewer, but it is not ham-handed to the point of turning the viewer off completely. Still, writer/director Stephen Gaghan (working from Robert Baer’s book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism) has a disturbing tendency, at regular intervals, to make a character suddenly deliver a speech. Often the speech seems to be a manifesto from the filmmakers, as with those delivered by the characters played by Matt Damon and Alexander Siddig. At other times, the speeches put words in the mouths of people the filmmakers are criticizing, notably the “corruption is our protection” diatribe uttered by Tim Blake Nelson, in a cinematic echo of Michael Douglas’s “greed is good” speech in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. This particular polemic is key in that it lays out the filmmakers’ thesis that government regulation and the justice system give the mere illusion of oversight of the capitalist system and liberal markets which, they posit, are inherently corrupt. By the time you combine this with an un-rebutted speech by an imam about how liberal democracy has nothing to offer Moslems, the movie pretty much becomes a virtual Marxist tract.

Despite the topical and up-to-the-minute feel of the movie, upon reflection, it really feels quite old-fashioned. By largely ignoring the Iraq situation and concentrating on time-worn rebuttals of capitalism and the sins of large oil companies, it makes one realize that the movie could easily have been set in any time period going back to the 1950s. Its portrayal of big business and U.S. government forces thwarting nascent Arab progressivism is not forced to confront the complicating fact of 12 million people voting for Iraq’s first-ever elected government under coalition auspices.

With the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion, there has been much rehashing over the bad intelligence that was used to justify it (much provided by the CIA, which, in Syriana, actually seems fairly efficient when it needs to be) and the mistakes and misjudgments made afterwards. But it is interesting to compare that history with recent Balkan history, which has also been rehashed lately, upon the passing of Milosevic. In the Balkan case, much of the retrospective lamented that the world’s powers did not intervene soon enough to prevent the slaughters that flowed from Milosevic’s bellicose reign. In the Iraqi case, the lamentation was that American-led coalition did intervene, leading to thousands of coalition and Iraqi casualties.

Every time America has considered or undertaken military action over the past 30 years, there has been much discussion of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome.” The idea is that the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia was such a disaster that American politicians and citizens have little or no will to risk another “quagmire.” Personally, I think every military action in the past 60 years, including Vietnam, has been colored by what I call World War II syndrome. I think World War II was decisive in how Americans view war. Since 1945, Americans (and citizens of other countries, as well) have been divided into two basic camps. One camp lives in fear that the current president will turn out to be Neville Chamberlain and that he will fail to stand up to and stop the next Hitler. The other camp lives in fear that the current president will turn out to be the next Hitler. The first camp saw Vietnam as a continuation of WWII, with Ho Chi Minh as Hitler. The second camp saw the U.S. as the new Nazi Germany, trying to conquer another country. The same two camps are having the same argument over the war in Iraq. And I am not speaking abstractly. President Bush has actually compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler, and Bush’s most vociferous critics have actually compared Bush to Hitler.

When you compare the Balkans in the 1990s and Iraq in this decade, however, the most curious thing about Saddam’s forcible removal is its timing. Saddam used biological weapons against his own people and others, authorized mass killings, initiated a lengthy, bloody war with one neighbor and invaded another. In hindsight, one shakes one’s head that the intervention came only after Saddam had been contained for a dozen years. But Bush did give a his reason for the timing. Weapons of mass destruction were the immediate and main rationalization, but even if they had been found, that wouldn’t have explained the timing. Saddam had been dealing with WMDs for years. The thing that changed, of course, was 9/11. But Bush conceded that there was no evidence that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks, so they were not specifically a reason (although a surprising portion of the country seems to have thought it was).

No, the reason that Bush gave for the timing of the invasion was that the toppling Saddam would help prevent the next 9/11 type attack. (It was specifically not to avenge the actual 9/11 attack.) Was he right? How will we ever know? The invasion was a huge gamble that has taken many lives. On the other hand, it should be remembered that the first Gulf War had never really ended. Hostilities had continued, as the U.S. enforced a no-fly zone, and some agencies were estimating that as many as 200 Iraqis were dying each day as a result of U.N. sanctions. The situation is not nearly as clear cut as both supporters and opponents like to make it out to be.

A couple of notes for any journalists out there. As various groups have tallied the Iraqi civilian casualties over the past three years, most reports I have heard on the three-year anniversary assign responsibility, implicitly or explicitly, for all of them to the U.S.-led invasion. Fair enough. If A had not happened, then B would have not happened. But at what point does some moral responsibility start getting assigned to the forces that are trying to topple the government that was elected by those 12 million voters? I’m not trying to justify the invasion. I’m just asking a question. And, more importantly, to those Sunday newsmaker program hosts who regularly grill their guests about the justifications for the war, instead of merely prefacing your questions with the mantra “no WMDs were found,” why don’t you assign a few reporters to find out what actually happened to the WMDs? Or at least find out if our government knows. We know they existed. Where did they go? Who has them now? And what are they going to do with them? This is what scares me.

* * *

Okay, I admit it. I was really stretching things last week in my appreciation of the late Maureen Stapleton in highlighting her Irish roots. What can I say? Given that the column was meant to be about the current state of the movie industry in Ireland, I made a segue the best way I could. What I didn’t realize was how close to home her Irish roots were.

According to one of the local papers this week, Stapelton’s grandparents came from the same tiny village as my wife’s grandparents, less than 20 miles from my own house. In fact, says the Western People, Stapleton still has relatives here in the west of Ireland. Given how tightly knit these villages are, there is a good chance that I am actually more closely related (through marriage) to Maureen Stapleton than I am to Michael Moore!

It is a small world indeed.

-S.L., 23 March 2006

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive