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Review: Syriana


Months after it opened, a friend of mine and I were talking about Traffic – Steven Soderbergh’s film about the international drug trade, scripted by Stephen Gaghan and based on a prior BBC mini-series – and my friend offered how, to him, the film’s acclaim and controversy felt overdone. He didn’t feel Traffic said anything interesting or shocking or revelatory; it didn’t tell him anything he didn’t know already. I couldn’t challenge his personal taste – always a near-impossible thing to do – but I did observe how the film may not have been revelatory or groundbreaking to him because he went to frickin’ Dartmouth and has never spent a night in jail, known a moment of want or lived in enough pain that drugs would be the only possible way to feel better. His past – and his privilege – meant he lived in a world that is wildly different from the world most people live in; they also meant he probably had no way of perceiving his past or privilege, much as I doubt fish have a word for water.

I was reminded of my friend’s reaction to Traffic after Syriana, a similarly broad and ambitious film scripted – and, this time out, directed – by Stephen Gaghan. My friend’s detached words didn’t echo in my memory; they were spoken out loud by some of my fellow reviewers: “ ... Not that engaging … ” “… No real plot or through-line … ” and, yes, “ ... It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.” More often than not, the biggest enemies of engaged, political art are not on the far-Right; often, they’re on the near-Left. Most film writers operate out of a narrow comfort zone, thinking about a film only in the context of the thousands of films they’ve seen before and not in the context of the people who will actually pay to see it and the world they live in. The audience may not be as informed on current events as some of the people reviewing films, but they are also probably not as bored, blasé and bland about the ideas in the film as the seen-it-all scribblers picking at it with a thousand tiny knives. (And I too am guilty of the same, a thousand times over.)

I personally enjoyed Syriana as a film – it’s well-shot, well-acted, intellectually and emotionally involving and as confusing, complicated and irrational as the real world it captures. I also can’t think of a movie this year that had as much to say and was, at the same time, made with such a sense of art. Lots of people are going to find Syriana wanting because they’ll be seeing it purely through the lens of other films. Watch Syriana through the lens of the world, as a work of journalistic political fiction, and it’s fascinating, involving and thrilling. Or, more bluntly: Don’t think of Syriana’s swirling mix of plot lines and people chasing an ever-dwindling supply of oil as a semi-sequel to Traffic. Think of it as a partial prequel to Mad Max

In the Persian Gulf, a small, wealthy oil-exporting country is shaping its own destiny – as the young Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), next line for the throne, grants natural gas drilling rights to Chinese interests and not the America company, Connex, that used to have them. Desperate to have somewhere, anywhere, to drill, Connex is hoping to merge with Killen – a small company which has somehow gained the rights to drill in Kazakhstan. The merger will need to be approved by the Justice Department, so Connex’s legal team, including tight-clenched lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffery Wright), are looking for trouble in the deal from the inside before Justice can find it from the outside. In Tehran, CIA man Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is drinking, dealing arms and arranging murder to maintain the status quo, while in Geneva financial analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is trying to surf on the waves of the global oil market so his clients – and he – can profit. And the Prince’s decision means that Pakistani foreign laborers Saleem Ahmed Kahn (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) lose their jobs working for Connex – and the right to stay in the country, which is why the local Islamic madrassa’s charity and community through Islam has such an appeal to Wasim.

And faster than you can say ‘Robert Altman,” the seemingly-disparate worlds of the characters come together, even if you may want to keep a scorecard near the finale to follow the betrayals and conflicts. But Syriana isn’t just artistically ambitious; it’s intellectually ambitious, too. That reveals itself in some less-than-elegant ways: Gaghan's script is a bit statistics-heavy, as various people inform us of such facts as “ … More money was spent on the syndication rights to the TV series Seinfeld than on the last Presidential election in the United States ...” or that “ … There are 10 million Muslims in America …” or how “ … two-thirds of Iran’s population is under 30.” Then again, how rare is it to see a film that has information to convey?

And at the same time, Gaghan’s script is never stuffy or inhuman. These characters are people, and we have heartfelt and natural scenes in the film – a father mourning the loss of his son, or where two young men are kicking a soccer ball around and shooting the breeze about the science of Spider-Man before they’re interrupted by the cleric who’s training them to be suicide bombers. It is also funny in a very real and human way, as when CIA man Barnes is listening to his son (Max Minghella) about how he’d be happier if his dad took a cushy desk job instead of having dad’s field postings impact his adolescence: “You know what Prom is like in Pakistan? Prom sucks.”

Comparisons to Traffic will be inevitable, and Syriana has some of Traffic’s weaknesses, just as it has some of that film’s strengths. In Traffic, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s transformation from trophy wife and soccer mom to Lady Macbeth felt rushed. So does Damon’s arc here, going from being an eyes-on-the-prize money manager with a shattered life to serving as the too-optimistic advisor to an embattled, reform-minded Middle Eastern ruler, like Lawrence of Arabia in an Armani suit. And many will suggest that Gaghan is just lifting styles and storytelling ideas from Traffic director Soderbergh (with capable help from director of photography Robert Elswit and editor Tim Squyers). I can’t say if I agree, but I can say that, frankly, there are far worse people to steal from. Syriana isn’t as propulsive as Traffic – probably because Traffic had plenty of people with guns to shove the plot along – but Syriana is also full of moments where the betrayers and killers don’t come with guns and knives or rope but instead bearing smiles and handshakes and fountain pens.

On a performance level, Gaghan gets great little moments out of character actors like David Clennon, Jamey Sheridan and Tim Blake Nelson. He also manages to put familiar faces in new light, such as Amanda Peet’s work as Damon’s wife, or Clooney’s puffy, pragmatic CIA man Barnes, whose middle-age paunch hides a will of cold steel, whose “good” work in the past is fading out of sight in a present defined by expediency and change.  (When asked to address a group of policy-makers about the Middle East, Barnes is prepped by his boss Sheridan with iron-clad talking points reflecting the intelligence people want, not need, to hear: “Don’t chomp down on any bait. We’re fine. Iran is fine. Fine.”) Damon and Clooney may be the marquee names (and they may also have the lion’s share of action and emoting in the film), but Siddig, Munir and Wright give great performances as well.

Syriana isn’t going to have you sauntering out into the lobby singing a happy song about Bohemian life like some of the other films coming out at the end of the year; you won’t be speaking with breathless urgency about the beauty of the Kabuki-style costumes or how the majesty of the visual effects made a giant ape feel real. You will leave Syriana unsettled; you may leave it trying to untangle plot strands, or arguing with friends about what you just saw and what it just meant. Syriana is a big, bold movie full of ideas that also has a warm and real sense of humanity and provides more questions than answers. That realism – an uncertain film for uncertain times – is what truly makes Syriana the must-see film of 2005.  

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1. Sounds like I'll hate it. I found Traffic so dull I'd rather clean the seats in my car. Syrannia looks like the same kind of vapid screenwriting where the characters and events are nothing new and not the least bit interesting. I'll see it but I don't expect much.

Posted at 3:01PM on Nov 23rd 2005 by bgdc 4 stars

2. If I have to "think of it as a partial prequel to Mad Max," I think I can skip it. I don't think we're headed in that direction, or even remotely the same universe. The movie's premise is roughly as realistic as "The Day After Tomorrow" but it's put out as though it should be disturbing because it's so plausible. I'll just go ahead and watch the real "Chicken Little."

Posted at 4:50PM on Nov 23rd 2005 by Morgan 5 stars

3. I couldn't disagree with you more, however I think it's because your entire premise as to why some people may not like it is one I would argue with as well. My problem with Syriana wasn't that I knew it all; I don't mind seen well-told stories about things I already know as long as they're still engrossing. My problem is that Gaghan doesn't tell us his story. This movie, to my mind, is absolutely terribly directed, and it bangs you over the head with its point and themes not through any sort of action or even simple story development but rather with individual characters essentially reading position papers. The big Tim Blake Nelson scene made me want to shoot myself, and it's probably the primary theme of the entire damn film. The saving grace of Syriana is the performances which are all fantastic, and I give even more credit to the great cast because I don't believe Gaghan gave them much in the way of actual characters to grab on to. When the film is over, we still don't really know who any of these people are or, more importantly, what their motivations were, with the exception of the Arab priest and Christopher Plummer. But our main troika -- Clooney, Damon and Wright -- exist not in shades of grey, but as muddy blurs.

Posted at 11:08AM on Nov 24th 2005 by Aaron 4 stars

4. I found the movie as ridiculous and as unrealistic as pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The plot of Syriana, along with the myriad of characters, asks a simple question: What are we really, *really* willing to do for oil? The fact that we buy and sell vehicles with a fuel efficiency of less than 20 mpg indicates that we actually don't care to know the answer - but no worries, mate, the bill will become due soon enough!

Posted at 1:23PM on Dec 10th 2005 by Ramón 0 stars

5. I completely agree with this review. I found Syriana to be one of the most intellectually engaging movies of the year. I think Steven Soderberg would have given us a slightly better paced film, but the intricate links between the characters are superbly handled by Gaghan. The film has to be viewed without any preconceieved ideas of how a film should evolve or expectations of plot development, because it has its own unique style and a fascinating way of relating concepts, facts, and insider information in the political fiction genre. BEST FILM OF THE YEAR (NEXT TO CRASH) in my opinion.

Posted at 1:50PM on Dec 11th 2005 by Kuldeep Tagore 0 stars

6. I was ready to walk out of the movie after the first 45 minutes because of its confusing process. It all came together at the end. I agree with the film's political message:"It's a battle to the death" because of our addiction to petroleum, but I doubt if the film is going to change many minds. The film was like trying to read a James Joyce novel. A cliff notes outline would have The cinematography was excellent.

Posted at 3:29PM on Dec 11th 2005 by Byron Park 0 stars

7. I am in the military and I have been to the middle east. I would say my political views fall more to the right, but I also think that everyone should see this movie. I dont care about who these characters are nor do I need stroytelling that is easier to follow. What I do need is a story worth watching, and this story needs to be told. Real life may be not be quite as bad as in this movie or (even scarier thought) it could be worse but we as americans should always ask questions and not just accept everything we are told. This movie should have people asking questions. Unfortunately, too many people will probaly take the view of the first two reviewers on this list witout even giving the movie a chance or just plain writing it off because the " character development " wasnt there or something about the transition from act 1 to act 2 was a bit off and the lighting was poor. Wake up people and put away the fine tooth "ebert and roper" comb and listen to the story. I am not saying you have to believe it but I will say you are a fool if you believe "we" do things around the world and in this country strictly for the betterment of hummanity. I walked out of this movie feeling dissatisfied, unsettled and a little pissed off just like every american should when they think something fishy is going on. I liked it.

Posted at 5:14AM on Dec 22nd 2005 by will 0 stars

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