"Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulations. That's Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize."
Since it came out in 2005 (at the height of the Iraq War) I have attempted to watch the movie Syriana three times. The first time, I got confused and turned it off. The second time, I fell asleep. But the third time, today, I watched the whole movie, with rapt attention. The film uses the multi-narrative style of movies like Crash, Magnolia, and Babel to tell a complex, but ultimately urgent and frightening story.
Basically, the movie is about a merger between two American oil companies. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. The major players in this merger include the U.S. military, the CIA, a monarch from the United Arab Emirates, a Wall Street trader, corporate lawyers, the U.S. Department of Justice, and others.
But my point here is not to confuse, but to clarify. Issues like this are all too often made intentionally complex, to insulate them from public scrutiny. The movie Syriana attempts nobly to humanize and and make sense of these realities.
The essential point, or thesis, of the movie is this: The United States government is willing to use military force to protect the interests of its oil companies. A question the film poses is: Even if this relationship (between big business and the government) allows us to have lower gas prices in America, is it worth the cost in human lives and crippled nations? A sub-question is this: How do we, as Americans, balance the competing values of self-interest and global justice? With these questions in mind, let's look at the film.
A monarch of the United Arab Emirates is sick and dying, and he has two sons, one of whom he must appoint as heir. The eldest son, Mohammed Sheik Agiza, wants what is best for his country. He wants to build an oil pipeline to Europe, so that his country's resources may be used to develop infrastructure, create a parliament, and create a self-sustaining nation. The younger son is a selfish and vain trust fund kid who wants what is best for himself.
In the film, the US government, acting as the CIA, tries twice to assassinate the elder son. The second time, they are successful, the youngest son is appointed heir, and the US oil company Conex Killen (after their merger) is given the contract to drill in their region, and reap all the profits. The Emirate will remain a US puppet, and not a self-sustaining nation.
That is the basic plot of the film. There are lots of interesting side stories, but that is the conflict at the movie's heart: The US government, acting on behalf of big oil, cripples a developing country and assassinates a noble leader, for its own financial self-interest.
One might respond...Well, it's just a work of fiction. True, but it is based on a real, non-fiction book called See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War Against Terrorism, a 2003 memoir by Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer in the Directorate of Operations.
Historically, the United States has a precedent of supporting corrupt dictators, so long as they are friendly to US business interests. One example I know of is Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, a ruthless fascist dictator of the Dominican Republic, whom the US supported because he was friendly to our business interests, particularly sugar. This historical reality, and its real-world consequences, are poignantly described in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.
Syriana ends by cutting back and forth between scenes of the CEO of Conex Killen receiving "Oilman of the Year" award, and the CIA assassination of Agiza (the noble son of the Emir). One of the benefits of film is its ability to collapse our first-person view of the world and allow us to see it from multiple perspectives. Syriana does this with intensity and urgency.