Syriana: A Review.

Walking out of SYRIANA this afternoon, I turned to my friends and said, “that wasn’t confusing at all.” They agreed. Our only conclusion is that SYRIANA is the type of movie that rewards attention and punishes those who rely on instant gratification.

The short and inaccurate review: like TRAFFIC, only with oil.

SYRIANA is a bit like TRAFFIC: it’s an assembly of seemingly distinct narratives that revolve around a common theme. As the drama evolves the threads begin to intertwine, until the climax brings all things together. But SYRIANA’s not just like TRAFFIC — it’s like CRASH, it’s like PULP FICTION, it’s like any number of modern dramas. That complexity and interconnectedness isn’t unique, but it’s fun, as the mystery of how things will come together is constantly in mind. SYRIANA has many significant characters, with each of its four major plotlines involving four or five significant characters to remember. That can cause headaches among the simple and confused, but for the modern moviegoer capable of paying attention, that’s not too many. Instead, the interplay and overlap of the worlds is like a multifaceted Venn diagram of sorts, and the viewer is left to guess as to how all of the stories and intrigues will come together in a net of oil, money, government and terrorism.

The film is a fictionalized version of a CIA spook’s memoirs — in this film, a portly and bearded George Clooney plays Bob, the weary CIA operative. Clooney plays the character just right: Bob is never the focus of attention, but is the man in the background, the soldier in a war of information. It’s possibly his finest performance, easily up there with THE PERFECT STORM and THREE KINGS. His performance is all the better because Clooney tries so hard to be self-effacing, but it’s far from the only good acting in the film. Jeffrey Wright does the best antitrust lawyer I’ve ever seen (the due diligence aspects of this movie were dead-on, if you’re curious), Siddig Al-Fadil (of ST: DS9 fame) is in comfortable shoes as a young oil prince, and Matt Damon does a more than adequate job as an investment banker. These are worlds I’ve dabbled in myself, as a Wall Street lawyer who’s done some work with energy companies. I was surprised at how the film deals with economic and social complexity on an honest level, resisting the urge to oversimplify for the audience’s sake. This may be why the movie demands concentration: it refuses to talk down to the viewer or slow down for exposition’s sake. It is relentless in its information flow and latticework of connections.

What can we say about Stephen Gagham, the writer/director? He wrote TRAFFIC too, and the same style pervades in the narrative, if not the look. Soderbergh’s sensibility to color and light is missing here (he’s an EVP), but Gagham still has something of a feel for the desert, showing the bleak empty dunes of the middle east (and the empty dunes of corporate America). There is no lush vegetation or beauty in SYRIANA, except for the passing wealth of oil tycoons (sic transit gloria). Gagham preserves the narrative well, no easy task considering the multitude of threads to recall. But he has not done so with a kindly hand, as Soderbergh did in TRAFFIC; here, transitions are quick and immediate, leaping from one side of the globe to the other without explanation. You’d better remember names and places the first time they appear, because Gagham’s not waiting for you to catch up (I believe SYRIANA will be a rewarding DVD release).

SYRIANA is not an unalloyed good. Like TRAFFIC, it ultimately yields to a denoument with characters acting out-of-character for the sake of the drama (Clooney’s Bob, in real life, simply would not have acted as he does). Not all of its stories bear equal weight, and for that matter, not all show an equal level of connection. Some of the more powerful narratives, such as the one involving a young, poor muslim living under the bootheel of the global oil machine, end up losing their punch because of their relatively distant orbit. Of course, the politics of the film are suspect, as are its implications: are we really to believe that initiatives to support liberalism in Iran are nothing more than smokescreen for global oil consortiums? These types of interconnected narrative films help to cultivate an overactive sense of suspicion and paranoia, if nothing else, in true X-Files style. Sadly, I prefer the possibility of alien invasion to the stark and sad worldview of corruption in SYRIANA.

11 thoughts on “Syriana: A Review.

  1. Nice review Supergenius, you are indeed a super genius.

    But I disagree that the film is merely rewarding attention and punishing seekers of instant gratification. A fifteen minute introduction to characters and storylines would have made a world of difference. It’s as if they finished the movie, and then decided to just cut off the whole introduction. I don’t think that’s good storytelling. Introductions have a purpose – no one likes to go into a movie halfway through.

  2. Eric, I plead diff’rent strokes on that issue. I found that things started off with enough of an introduction for me to follow, but it was definitely sparse. I admit that another minute or two wouldn’t have hurt, but I’m not sure it would have fit in with the overall narrative.

    The film has kind of in medias res structure, which is tough at first, but again this is part of the worldview, similar to TRAFFIC, where we examine a tranche of the timeline as life goes by. The filmmaker here isn’t telling a story, he’s slicing a bit of life for us to examine, like removing a section of a tree limb. The idea of a beginning and an end would have been against the concept of reality: i.e., that this whole thing started long, long ago, and it continues long, long after the curtain rises.

  3. Excellent review, Supergenius. I saw this movie last week, and thoroughly enjoyed it until I read the NY Times review (and others) that pointed out the flaws that I missed while captivated by the story.

    I’m no fan of conspiracy theories (which is why I didn’t much like “The Constant Gardener”), but I think Syriana does a good job of portraying how a small group of people (oil companies, Middle Eastern heads of state) control the destinies of millions. The poor Muslim boy who becomes indoctrinated with radical Islam is a perfect example of how we’re all just cogs in the machine – so we’d better take our chances at glory whenever we can.

    I also liked Jeffrey Wright. He was phenomenal. And what a paradigm shift from his role as the gay nurse in “Angels in America”!

    Great review, thanks.

  4. R.W., “lefty cartoon” is too much (esp. for someone who hasn’t seen it). Was TRAFFIC a lefty cartoon? If so, it was a remarkably well-done cartoon.

  5. I’ve read the memoir, See No Evil, that the Syriana is based on and I really don’t see how they could have turned that into a movie.

    Basically the book is just a complaint against the Clinton administration and its selling out the National Security Council to Big Oil (ironic in view of today’s conventional wisdom).

  6. For an elitist contrary opinion, read Godfrey Cheshire’s review here.

    And it’s Gaghan with an ‘n’, for those of you Googling.

    Nice review, Supergenius. Although I guess if you want to be a supergenius, you can’t admit you didn’t know what the heck was going on.

  7. I don’t have to see it, thank God. That’s why we have movie critics and the occasional intelligent observer like Cohen.

  8. Saw it last night. The single best thing we can all do to save the world? Conserve energy. Oh, and we should be very afraid of madrasas.

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