Paradise Now
Director: Hany Abu-Assad. Cast: Kais Nashef, Ali Suliman, Lubna Azabal, Amer Hlehel, Ashraf Barhom, Mohammad Bustami, Hiam Abbass. Screenplay: Hany Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer.

Director: Stephen Gaghan. Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Alexander Siddig, Jeffrey Wright, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Amanda Peet, Nicky Henson, Mazhar Munir, Shahid Ahmed, Nadim Sawalha, Tim Blake Nelson, Peter Gerety, Jayne Atkinson, Tom McCarthy, Mark Strong, William Hurt, David Clennon, William Charles Mitchell, Amr Waked, Jamey Sheridan, Badria Timimi. Screenplay: Stephen Gaghan (suggested by the book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism by Robert Baer).

Photo © 2005 Warner Independent Pictures
The rending and seemingly never-ending conflicts in the Middle East impose a heavy question on the cinema: can art, at least this particular art, really bear the weight and depth of everything at stake? Can a close-up, even a lingering one, really capture anything in a face that draws out or explains the psychology of the suicide bomber, the entrenched greed of the oil-slicked politico? Can an establishing shot evoke anything in these lands that captures why these lands are so bloodily contested, so invested with the love and jealousy of centuries, millennia? Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now, a Palestinian character study of two ambivalent suicide bombers, and Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, a deceptively hushed epic about the trans-continental grids and handshakes that keep the gas pumps pumping and the world in misery, tackle two of the region's three defining quagmires. (Now all we need is someone's angry, explosive movie about water.) To be honest, I found both movies to be deeply enervating, and at times close to unwatchable, and I'm not sure how to sound the reasons for my responses. It's true that neither Abu-Assad nor Gaghan, each working as both screenwriter and director, seems quite up to the task of what they are tackling, though for opposite reasons: Paradise Now's creakiest element by far is its mechanistic and too often see-through screenplay, while Gaghan saps a lot of the strength from the swift, bold, and incisive strokes of his script by failing to find a way to direct it all cohesively, to summon the kind of viewer confidence that won't keep asking questions about where we are, whom we're meeting, and why we are learning so little about people who seem to matter a great deal. I stand by these skepticisms, even as I ask, who could possibly do justice to these themes, and if the option is to omit such era-defining strife from our movie screens—or, worse, to trivialize and abstract it into the glossy frescoes of a cop-out gesture like Jarhead—then are we not willing, at least, to stumble alongside these earnest but incomplete efforts? When these same films break away, however briefly, from their frustrating templates and yield even a sideways insight or glimpse into the hot mantle of the world's problems, the moments communicate real value, authenticating well beyond a publicist's mantra or a star's soundbyte that these films truly matter.

For long passages of Paradise Now, most of them concentrated toward the film's beginning, I let myself get impatient with the utterly non-adventurous technique and rather narrowly deterministic exposition. First, a beautiful and stylish woman named Suha (Lubna Azabal) walks nervously through a West Bank border patrol, in a scene directly reminiscent of those overplayed checkpoint melodramas in Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention, the last Palestinian drama that provoked me about equally in good and bad directions. In the second sequence, at the auto mechanic's shop where Suha is headed, a pair of employees debate the quality of a bumper-repair job with yet another customer who's much better-dressed than they are. The scene straightforwardly, almost cartoonishly establishes that of these two laborers, Khaled (Ali Suliman) is much more hot-headed than Said (Kais Nashef), a point that is reiterated twice as their boss Abu-Salim (Mohammad Bustami) fires Khaled for going so far over the line with the grousing client and as Suha and the reticent, sad-eyed Said share a more-than-halfway flirtatious conversation about Alfa Romeos. Abu-Assad's direction of all of these scenes is limp, exactly what you'd expect not from a born filmmaker but from a dogmatist or amateur dramatist, perhaps one writing from abroad. The only charge in the framings are the endless series of scrapped cars and freestanding parts, especially old doors, that shadow all of the conversations—a succinct testament to the constant and presumably violent auto wreckages in the region, but Abu-Assad underplays context and idiom so that Said, Khaled, and Suha can all slot themselves with glaring obviousness into the moral conundrum we already see coming. Now unemployed, Khaled has even less reason to resist the summons of a retaliatory terrorist cell, though it seems odd, having spent so much time setting up Khaled's reasons for having nothing to lose, that Said, despite his asymmetrical position with a steady job, an admiring boss, a doting family, and a hot ticket to romance, is just as quick to respond when strike coordinator Jamal (Amer Hlehel) comes knocking.

Of course the implication is that anecdotal factors like Khaled's listlessness and Said's social integration have nothing on both men's gnawing fury at Israeli settlers or their entrenched commitment to defending their people and their dream of a homeland. The problem is that Paradise Now implies this level of deep conviction, surpassing all externals and outside considerations, and yet the film gets stuck in a rut of just these kinds of superficies for a good third of its 90 minutes. Worse, none of this material feels terribly interesting or compellingly illustrative of what is sure to follow. A scene emblematic of Paradise Now's cold feet about its own subject matter plays out when Said makes a clandestine visit to Suha's house at 4:00 in the morning to slip her car keys under her door, since, having agreed to the next day's violent martyrdom, he never expects to see her again. Much goes wrong in this sequence, precisely because so little happens in it: the threat and danger of Said making such a prowling, inexplicable visit is instantly dispelled; Suha trots out her own personal backstory of intimate connections to the terrorist cycle, which should instantly allow her to recognize Said's true errand, but it's not at all implied that she does; the insinuation of romantic tension seems like an utter sidetrack, and one that is more and more implausible between these two characters the longer the film tries to drum it up.

That the filming style is so Hollywood-derived, all nervous shot/reverse shots between this man and this woman who try to read each other through idle, circuitous conversation, only exacerbates our sense that Paradise Now is not only prevaricating about its own destiny, but that it is trying to "humanize" these would-be bombers in a way that feels distinctly pandering to Western sympathies. Until Said delivers a revealing monologue much, much later in the movie—postponed for reasons of audience effect, not character sense—the film muffles any deeper veins of nationalism, religious fundamentalism, economic dismay, or any other element that might more fully or plausibly round out Said's motivations and internal debates. His predicament becomes one of rushing into violent death alongside his much more headstrong friend, or else listening to the lipsticked liberal counsel of this gorgeous daughter of a martyr, a casual acquaintance whose door is wide open to Said at all hours of the night so long as he accepts her oracular espousals of how to do the right thing. Filmed with largely European money, stamped from the outset with an English-language title, Paradise Now feels packaged for export, and for a long spell encourages the most cynical suppositions about why it can't plunge forward with its subject-matter in ways that feel a little truer to who this protagonist more likely is and how his final hours might more believably be spent.

There is, of course, a nasty and bitter aftertaste to the way Paradise Now's hedgy style and substance make you impatient for it to get on with the bombing, already. This aftertaste hardly dissipates upon discovery that the film really does lock into place and starts making some gut-level sense once Said and Khaled have been coiffed, dressed, instructed, and strapped with explosives that will detonate even if they try to remove or debilitate them. After a brief meeting with Abu-Karem (Ashraf Barhom), a mythic higher-up in this network's chain of command, the two are driven by Jamal to a rocky woodland, where a nearby stretch of the fence protecting Israel has been slit open by a paid Israeli accomplice. While Jamal clears the coast for them, Said and Khaled linger for a moment on a stony hillside that looks like a mound of stale popcorn, and in the relative silence and abstraction of this scene, the film finally shines on a light on how little we know of these men's rationales and resolve, and how it must feel to stand on the precipice of self-destruction for an ideal. In fact, intentionally or not, the fact that Paradise Now has heretofore held those very ideals at such a cagey remove aids the scene, since we realize how many things could still go wrong or, just as bad, go right for these two, and we don't know them well enough to make any predictions. This doesn't mean that the artificial and cozying early chapters suddenly improve in retrospect, but at least they haven't squelched the film's potential for relevance and charge as much as we might have feared.

When Khaled and Said are repelled back over the fence mere moments after crossing over, separated from each other's company and forced to navigate very different paths backward to – where, exactly? – the film finally reaches its maturity. As the spatial separations betwee Israel and Palestine become less legible, as first Khaled and then Said make panicked, instinctual retreats but fail to properly "read" where the other would have gone, Paradise Now establishes its long-delayed connection to the dissonant ids of its characters, to the fundamental mania of their predicaments, to their forced realizations of how extravagantly vulnerable and utterly outcast the suicide bomber becomes the moment he or she accepts that role, since no one ever expects them to return, and thus there is nowhere really to return. Hereafter the cuts become hastier and more interesting, and the most welcome scene in the film—of Said catching his breath in a public restroom, mopping the perspiration from beneath a heavy belt of ignitables that he can't dismantle—finally brings us close to the specific experience of his character, rather than his structural place in the broad calculus of should he or shouldn't he, will he or won't he, that had been his lot for so long.

The closing chapters of Paradise Now buckle a little whenever the screenplay reverts to its rigid affinity for medieval morality play: Suha never seems necessary to the story and Khaled's transformation isn't sufficiently explored or made intimate to the audience for us to accept it as anything other than a standard-issue fifth-act reversal. The final scene, which is hard to discuss without spilling its secrets, ends in a way that feels not just narratively but formally bashful—almost exactly the same ending chosen by Santosh Sivan's The Terrorist five years ago, which erred even more than this film does on the side of universalizing and audience-coddling dichotomies (my bomb or my baby?). Say this for Paradise Now, though: it does eventually find a deep, growling eddy of forward logic that seems greater than the characters, greater even than the vantage of the screenwriters. Harsh edits and at least one anxious point-of-view shot throw the veil off the pants-pissing fear and the frightening near-arbitrariness of the suicide bomber's decision process. I don't understand what is gained by "humanizing" a terrorist in the banal idioms that Paradise Now initially attempts; it shouldn't be escaping any of our attentions that of course terrorists are humans, but the root of the horror and the drama in their stories is the flexing of world systems, irrational convictions, paranoid refusals of alternatives, that erode the "human" in all of us and force us to act by social fiat, on terms that mightily surpass those of the individual. Paradise Now gets a little frantic and lost near the end, which is infinitely preferable to the bourgeois accessibility of its beginning. I would love for the film to have gone much further, cut deeper: watch it within days, weeks, even months of The Battle of Algiers and the thing melts to a nub. But it earns its place, eventually, as a film for our time, and it makes increasingly credible demands on the benefit of our doubt.

• • •

Photo © 2005 Warner Bros. Pictures/Section Eight/
Participant Productions
As I mentioned above, the problems with Syriana are the flip-sides of those with Paradise Now. Gaghan is fascinated by world systems, global ententes of money, alliance, and corruption that pull the prevailing order of things back into shape no matter how hard an individual might try to wrest it toward something new. Syriana therefore constructs itself as a mosaic or, better, as the shattering of something fragile and grand, whose pieces arrive in an inelegant order and never quite unite to restore the picture of the whole. Intellectually, this should speak quite well of Syriana: rather than using parallel montage and multiple storylines to show that everyone in LA is miserable, or everyone in LA is racist, or Look they're all really sisters, Syriana slices more deeply into a lymphatic system that covers the globe like the red weed in War of the Worlds, but visible only in its far-and-wide symptoms, never quite in itself. Gaghan's script has, mostly, even greater courage in its convictions than his fine, Oscar-winning template for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, but as a director, he lacks Soderbergh's ability to blend quotidian impressions with dramatic turning-points, so that we have a closer sense of how every level of life is a node within this system. Just watching a pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones cooling her heels with her girlfriends at an outdoor café, braying just above the din of the restaurant that she likes wine because she's European, evoked the insular comforts and casual roost-ruling that got so many of Traffic's characters into trouble. It's as memorable a moment as Zeta-Jones barking orders into her cell-phone to shoot a man in the head, even though there's no reason why it should be.

Gaghan lacks this kind of director's eye, though it may also be the case that Syriana editor Tim Squyres, so supple within the multi-character but still hermetic worlds of Sense and Sensibility or Gosford Park, is a little outpaced in trying to align the more disconnected dialogues and sprawling territories of Syriana into a manageable film. Either way, Syriana never quite feels comfortable in its quieter moments, its attempts to find its characters amid the lives they think they lead, while all along, something deeper is always afoot. Matt Damon siding against wife Amanda Peet when the kids complain about their soy-derived faux bacon, Jeffrey Wright stomaching the constant disappointment of his alcoholic father, George Clooney hustling up to Princeton to take son Max Minghella out to lunch... the sparks just don't fly. The film feels like it's crouching in wait of the more portentous scenes, though these, too, can be hit-or-miss. Wright's first meeting with Tim Blake Nelson's corporate shill on the seemingly private hunting grounds of oil tycoon Chris Cooper should feel like a weightier run-in, but the scene hammers home an analogy between cold-blooded hunting and cold-blooded oil profiteering that feels much too literal, and which virtually sidelines Nelson's character from making a needed impression. Damon and Peet, having suffered a major loss early in the film that is never properly assessed, flail helplessly in a park-bench conversation where his rising professional star and the couple's shared tragedy add up to virtually nothing in dramatic terms except one more character, Peet's, in which the film neither summons nor prompts a substantial interest.

Happily, the scenes that work in Syriana really do crackle. George Clooney, doted on as few other actors are by his good-buddy cinematographer Robert Elswit (Good Night, and Good Luck.), gets a splendid reaction shot as he discovers that a missile he was secretly peddling didn't wind up in the hands he intended, and then is granted an even punchier, stone-faced, panning close-up, shot from a tense low angle, as he walks staunchly away from a car bombing in which his own complicity is not fully clear. Clooney's other great scene is before a White House review committee where Viola Davis rips him to shreds inside of a minute, but not before he insults a sloganeering presidential program and puts his CIA cronies on a defensive tack for which they surely exact revenge. Damon also gets one especially good scene, though many of his others are flashier: a totally uncomfortable moment when the support staff of an Arab emir interviews Damon in an open hallway, full of interested ears, about a delicate proposal that his small, Geneva-based financial consultancy is proposing to the emir's government.

Syriana has some fine performances—those of Cooper, Wright, Missing's David Clennon in a bitty role, Davis and Jayne Atkinson in bittier ones—but they don't necesssarily correlate to Syriana's strongest scenes. The fact is that certain passages of this movie like those I have just reviewed seem thoughtfully constructed, clearly plotted, and formally assembled in such a way that they can piquantly reveal their own minuscule bearing on the outsized problems of Middle Eastern state suppression, of fiercely defended American interests and tactical assassinations, of the thinning moral oxygen the higher you climb on a corporate or diplomatic mountain. But other scenes, even entire character trajectories, do not seem carefully prepared in this way. Clooney's CIA operative, passing with lightning speed from an internally tolerated wild card to a bête noire to some kind of mad barnstorming avenger, follows an arc that feels both conveniently straightforward and rather murky in its substance. Wright is commandeered early in the movie by Christopher Plummer to manage a legal-eagle strike against monopoly economics that several earlier lawyers have failed to achieve, and while the script conjures some strong scenes where some avowed Faustians castigate Wright for his naïveté, the script furnishes little more than the self-evident conclusions voiced by all the villains, and precious little for Wright to play besides a rather effortful reticence. Damon has a big scene of taking the piss out of Alexander Siddig's shady but freedom-minded aspirant to his fading father's kingdom, and it's a crucial moment for how both characters subsequently develop, but it feels 1000% artificial, leapfrogging past mere dramatic convenience into something like supernatural levels of diplomatic insolence. Meanwhile, an almost submerged subplot about a Pakistani refugee who, like Khaled in Paradise Now, beats a quick path to terrorism after losing his job, feels strangely abstract and noncommittal, as if Gaghan didn't want to open a whole can of worms about terrorism but also couldn't bring himself to shuck that layer of the problem.

Burbling underneath Syriana, as finely and spookily as Alexandre Desplat's minimalist score, is the unbeatable argument that these are, in the language of Marxist media theory, "unfigurable" problems: any attempt to represent the scale of the world's oil dependency or the concomitant, universal criminality that keeps the rigs running could only be inadequate, and so the best strategy for at least indicating the scope of this poisonous root network is to play up the fissures, blind-spots, and vacuums of knowledge. Deliberately or not, this is just what Syriana appears to do. The film spooks you: you have to give it that, and it makes a powerful case, if only by default, that we've already lost our mutual endgame with capital and treachery. But it's as though the film succeeds by a kind of loophole clause: its limits are in fact its strengths, while its surface is doomed to inadequacy, and I just don't buy that a bolder director, a more brilliant editor, or a more judiciously managed handful of central plot-strands couldn't have put this story over with the kind of force and panache that wouldn't feel like a capitulation to the impossibility of the movie's own goals. Even something like Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Supremacy, dashingly souped up for escapist consumption, still detailed its skull-and-bones conspiracies and captured a global power regime amid the spasms of its own making in a way that Syriana never quite manages. There's also the lingering aroma of fraidy-catting in this most unlikely of films: how come we venture to places as specific as Georgetown, Virginia, and Geneva, Switzerland, and Princeton, New Jersey, but at other times find ourselves in "the Persian Gulf"? It's not a film that washes from your mind. It clings there, latching itself to worries you already harbor about the true foundations of our Exxon Supreme, and of every other largesse we enjoy. But it also latches itself, or at least it did in my case, to mental outlines of the more tightened, efficient thriller that Syriana could have been, even without sacrificing its apt vision of a world in shards. Grades: Paradise Now: B–; Syriana: B

Academy Award Nominations for Paradise Now:
Best Foreign-Language Film

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners for Paradise Now:
Best Foreign-Language Film

Other Awards for Paradise Now:
Berlin Film Festival: Amnesty International Film Award
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign-Language Film
National Board of Review: Best Foreign-Language Film
European Film Awards: Best Screenplay

Academy Award Nominations for Syriana:
Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney
Best Original Screenplay: Stephen Gaghan

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners for Syriana:
Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney
Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat

Other Awards for Syriana:
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Ensemble Cast
National Board of Review: Best Adapted Screenplay

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