Monday, December 12, 2005

"Syriana" Misrepresents International Lawyers

This weekend I saw the movie Syriana, and it just begs to be blogged about. For one thing, much of the move is about lawyers and what scheisters they are. For another, it is about international lawyers and what scheisters they are. As an international lawyer turned international law professor, this movie is right up my alley.

So like a typical law professor, let me point out a few reasons why I think the movie is both good and bad, and then let you draw your own conclusions.

Why Syriana is Good:

1. Syriana makes you think. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan does not pander to the audience on the assumption that people are stupid, and his movie absolutely demands full attention every single moment. Do not take a pee break during this film or you will be hopelessly lost.

2. Syriana is overt social and political commentary. As Tarzan might say, "Commentary good, silence bad." You may find the message--that oil rules the world and warps our political decisions, personal values and business ethics--all too obvious and more than a little heavy-handed. But the movie offers a message other than "Blow up the bad guys and you get the hottie with the tattoo," so that alone is meritorious.

3. Syriana is the only movie, to my knowledge, that actually quotes the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In fact, the FCPA is the basis not only for a full scene in the movie, but for an entire subplot. I did a lot of FCPA work when I practiced law; if only it had been this exciting!

4. The movie illustrates that U.S. foreign policy decisions have enormous and far-reaching consequences. Should the U.S. back the movie's pro-democracy prince (a very good Alexander Siddig from Star Trek DS9) who wants to strengthen his Middle Eastern country's business ties with Iran? Or his playboy brother who obviously does not care about social progress but is willing to allow the U.S. to maintain a military presence in his country? The U.S. very clearly does reap what it sows when it makes foreign policy decisions like this. Don't forget that the U.S. strongly backed Saddam Hussein's regime against Iran in the 1980s.

Why Syriana is Bad:

1. Syriana is boring. I hate saying that, and I may catch flak for it, but so help me it is a boring movie. Well done, intricate, pretty to look at, disturbing--and boring. Someone actually fell asleep in the theater while I was watching it (no, it was not me). Maybe it was the direction: this was Gaghan's directorial debut. Traffic, which was written by Gaghan but directed by Stephen Soderbergh, was less pedestrian.

2. At least when it comes to lawyers, Syriana is hyperbolic. As I said, I did a fair amount of FCPA and other international work in practice--including a good bit of work for companies in the oil business. And never, ever did I see--or even hear about--associates sending their bosses to jail or senior partners working to effect a regime change abroad. I'm not saying it could never happen. I am saying that if it ever were to happen it would be the exception, not the rule. The story would have been far more accurate--and no less boring--had it been more nuanced. For example, based on a set of questionable facts the lawyer decides to go against his instincts to make a judgment call in favor of his client, and has to live with the potential amorality of this decision. All perfectly legal (lawyers are supposed to advocate for their clients after all), and all perfectly disturbing in such circumstances--since what you have is a lawyer making a living and a career out of such behavior. But no--this movie has to have lawyers shafting their bosses and up-ending foreign regimes.

So I leave it up to you to decide whether this is a good movie or a bad one. I think it is an excellent but boring movie, which is classic lawyer-speak for saying that I think it is both good and bad. Or neither.


David said...

Your reasons to like it are all good points. And I didn't find it boring. But I did find the characters shallow and role-driven: "Oh, now we need a Good Moslem, and now we need a Dissolute Prince..., etc."

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