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Syriana and Paradise Now

Movies | A look at how two new films confront the Middle East issue

Issue: "Comfort and joy," Dec. 24, 2005

Disney takes on The Chronicles of Narnia, and The New York Times, among others, nearly trips over its feet in a rush to expose a conspiratorial web of religious and political connections. Everyone from financiers (Christian billionaire Phil Anschutz-how dare he use his money for propaganda!) to marketers (Disney advertises the film to churches!) comes under distrustful scrutiny.

But where are these stories when a film like Syriana (rated R for violence and language), which actually is absurdly conspiratorial in itself, hits theaters? It's easy to trace the financing for the film. The first company credit onscreen is for "Participant Productions," a company with this mission statement: "Participant believes in the power of media to create great social change. Our goal is to deliver compelling entertainment that will inspire audiences to get involved in the issues that affect us all."

It says that on the company's website; a sister website, www.participate.net, directly encourages activism. The film was co-financed by Section Eight, a joint venture of Steven Soderbergh and Syriana's star, George Clooney-no strangers themselves to political activism.

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This may be a stretch, but could the film be at all agenda-driven?

There's nothing wrong with a perspective. What's just plain silly is the way critics have taken Syriana at face value, as if it's some sort of biting, impartial look at Big Oil, the CIA, and the Middle East, when it most clearly is not.

Syriana gives off the air of complexity and depth because it is, on the surface, confusing-characters enter and exit the story without much introduction or explanation about who they work for or what they're doing. But it doesn't take long to figure out that every character serves the same purpose: to blame the U.S. government and U.S. corporations for every evil in the Middle East.

Who is the enemy of reformers working to create democracy and improve women's rights in that oil-rich region? The CIA, of course. Who sells the rockets that will be used against U.S. oil tankers? One guess. Who actually conducts the suicide mission that sends that rocket hurtling, via speedboat, into the side of a tanker? Well, that's done by a local religious zealot, but he's so extreme only because he was fired from a refinery job by a heartless U.S. oil firm. A firm in cahoots with the CIA. You get the picture.

Most critics have been completely thrown off by Syriana's veneer of technical accomplishment-the film boasts many fine individual elements, including its all-star cast of Mr. Clooney, Matt Damon, Chris Cooper, and Christopher Plummer. And critics are generally so sympathetic with the message of the film that they ignore profound weaknesses in a script that thinks it's much smarter than it is.

By way of contrast, Paradise Now (rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language) focuses on just one volatile piece of Syriana's puzzle. Made by a Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad, Paradise Now tells the story of two (potential) Palestinian suicide bombers, from the start of their mission to its sad end.

The film humanizes the bombers in ways that are probably repugnant to Israeli families affected by such attacks. But it possesses something valuable that Syriana is completely without: an honest, local perspective on one aspect of violence in the Middle East.

Rather than the work of naval-gazing filmmakers beset by liberal guilt and an inability to see beyond their own borders when assessing blame, Paradise Now was shot largely in the West Bank and rings with sad truth.

This is not to say that the film's outlook on the conflict is the right one-Israel is portrayed without nuance as an occupier, oppressor, and villain. The film fails to question this perspective, although it does question the ongoing violent response to Israel's stance.

More than religious zeal, even, a sense of indignity and inferiority motivates Mr. Abu-Assad's characters. Paradise Now paints a sad, fascinating portrait of two young men who think that death (their own, and, although this integral element is skirted, of the Israeli civilians they blow up) is better than that indignity.

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