Syriana is the best Hollywood movie ever made about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. It’s also the only Hollywood movie ever made about the FCPA. But despite enthusiastic support for the film by some of our readers, we can’t give it top marks in our Sleaze in the Cinema category. Here’s why.
While the movie takes on plenty of important themes — the term Syriana is supposed to be Potomac shorthand for a political re-alignment of the Middle East — it’s unrelentingly cynical. Statecraft, spycraft, energy and military policy, the oil business — all come off as dark and dirty to the core. There’s no daylight anywhere, and that’s the problem.
If you haven’t seen the 2005 film, it’s about lots of things. There’s Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA war horse thrown into a U.S. plot to remove a Middle East prince. The oil companies and U.S. government don’t want the prince around because he’s too independent. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an oil broker helping the prince consolidate power. Then there’s the Justice Department, busy reviewing a merger of two U.S. oil companies — which is where the FCPA comes in. So the film has plenty going on.
As for the FCPA, it’s thoroughly trashed. In a scene featuring an oily Texas oilman called Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), he annihilates the rule of law:
. . . Corruption charges! Corruption? Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulations. That’s Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win.
Well . . . baloney. Instead of the greedy evasiveness of Syriana, we’ve found that most American business people genuinely want to do the right thing. Sure, in the early days of the FCPA nearly everyone involved with it was upset. The law seemed vague and threatening and somehow unfair. Why should American companies have to keep it clean overseas when others could do whatever the heck they wanted? But the years passed and the FCPA started to make sense. Today (and Syriana takes place today) most American business leaders and the rank-and-file understand why graft anywhere is bad for everyone. They even talk and act as though they’re proud of our global leadership in fighting public corruption.
Syriana is clever, raw, and disturbing. It’s slick and sophisticated. The dialogue is edgy and gives the impression that you’re eavesdropping on insiders. But the film is just too mean for our taste, and it’s inconsistent with our experience in the world.
Although we’re fans of Clooney, Damon and the FCPA, in the category of Sleaze in the Cinema, we give Syriana . . . 3 (out of 5) Red Flags.