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.