Syriana is the next in Participant Pictures’ series of… well, I’ve called it “propaganda” before and I’ll stick with that for now. They produce films with a “message” without being overly cloying. Their tag on the associated site, participate.net is “Movies have the power to inspire. You have the power to act. Participate!”
“What is this,” some no doubt say, “I don’t want politics with my movies.” Like all good propaganda, they tell the truth, and like all communication, it is the partial truth. They wear their politics on their sleeve. Yes, they are advertising, but not for Coke or for FedEx, but for issues that they think need attention. This is entertaining storytelling.
Syriana was not the best film I’ve seen recently. It doesn’t come together neatly, and the narrative needed more trimming to make it work on film. The acting is solid, but not great. But in all, it is both entertaining and enlightening. Even if it is “merely” propaganda, it may cause someone to think about the issue, to see the world through the screen. Even if it makes them angry, I think that is a good thing.
Lazarsfeld and Merton, among many others, worried about how the mass media could be used to guide through guile, to herd masses toward social action subtly. They worried because the mass media seemed largely and inevitably to be shaped by entrenched business and government interests. Here we have an example of the media industry creating strange new wealth that may be used to undo these entrenched powers. Even if the shift is subtle (perhaps especially) it is important.
Other films propagandize as well, it’s just not as clear what they are selling. Just before the film started, a commercial for the new videocasting services supported by Samsung cell phones appeared. It shows scenes of people lying around in public spaces staring at their phones. As if this is something new! It shows people as disengaged out in public space as they are when they are at home on the couch in front of the TV. Is this their vision of what their technology will allow? Where do you want to zone out today?
This is the most obvious counterpoint to the Participant films. Movies that encourage inactivity, that provide an escape. Bread and circuses. Many who write and produce movies have no problem creating distractions, and see themselves providing what the audience wants. But sometimes, what is wanted and what is needed are two different things.
So, go out and see Syriana. It’s entertaining. It has some beautiful shots of Morocco. And it makes you think; and you might find that thinking can be its own escape.