Though not a
perfect film, Syriana may be the most important fictional
one you see this year. You can walk the line up to Brokeback
Mountain, perhaps remembering a geisha or two, but Stephen
Gaghan's directorial debut is the film that we should all
be thinking about.
the moment, and as confusing at points as the moment is,
Syriana tries to sort out the miasma that is our
foreign policy and how it relates to Big Oil. Even as it
points fingers, though, the film also has a few pointing
back at us. In a widely touted speech, an oilman played
by Tim Blake Nelson revels in corruption because it is precisely
that corruption that makes the American way of life possible.
He may very well be right.
Based on true
events, but hopefully distorted for propagandistic effect,
Gaghan's cinematic rant feels almost as hopeless as it is
angry. As simply as it can be put, we have less oil than
we need. By "we," we mean the world. And should we not mean
all this requires multiple points of view, and like one
of Gaghan's earlier screenplays, Traffic, Syriana
weaves several plotlines through each other. George Clooney
stars as Bob Barnes, a CIA agent whose job it is to keep
the terrorist network unstable. Depending on your political
partisanship, that job may also entail keeping democracy
out of the Middle East in favor of rulers that favor
in the States, that business continues as usual, with corporate
lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) struggling to find
fish big enough to throw to the Justice Department without
compromising one oil company's buyout of another. Without
coming right out and echoing Wall Street, Wright
has to struggle with the concept that corruption is good.
boy Matt Damon anchors another segment, but whether or not
his commodities trader has a moral center still remains
in question. Certainly his wife (Amanda Peet) questions
it. But from the point of view of Prince Nasir (Alexander
Siddig), Damon's Bryan Woodman has a refreshing willingness
to be honest in a world where few traffic in candor.
to all of that is a disturbingly reasonable portrait of
the making of a terrorist, as a young Pakistani (Mazhir
Munir) falls sway to an Islamist, not Islamic, mode of thought.
Yet as we see the damage being wrought behind the scenes,
it's easy to see why a young man would turn to this, even
as it horrifies us.
It takes a while
for these threads to pull together, and for some, that may
be a turn-off. The overall rhythm of the film also has a
relaxed feel, for almost everyone involved has been there,
done that. Bob Barnes has successfully engineered all kinds
of political turnarounds, hinted at by his superiors, before
things go horribly awry this time. Why shouldn't it work?
Everybody likes Bob.
Syriana plays with its cinematography, utilizing
a washed-out feel for much of the film which gets a little
uncomfortable. Perhaps the effect ends up being more cinema
verite, but every now and then it would be nice to have
a visual reminder that this isn't real.
We sort of do,
in the manner of cultural references that we know aren't
real. Oddly enough, Syriana has the same fake movie
posters that the recently cancelled Threshold television
series does. Take heart - the oil crisis is nothing compared
to the coming alien invasion.
The script throws
in few unintentional wrenches. In a couple of places, you
can spot the cliché, particularly as Clooney walks nonchalantly
away from an explosion that almost doesn't matter. We get
betrayals that you can spot from miles away and a denoument
that defies belief. Or perhaps, and this again is the scary
part, the CIA can pull off something this public and nobody
would care, as long as the oil continued flowing.
As usual since
the Batman and Robin debacle, executive producer
Clooney delivers a terrifically lived-in performance. (And
physically dangerous - the weight gain he goes for has done
some damage to him personally.) Bob is a guy that lives
for his job, rarely connecting it to the lives that get
lost as a result.
lies a cadre of incredibly strong character actors. Not
just Tim Blake Nelson, but Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Jamey
Sheridan and Peet, finally getting a role that might lend
weight to her status. Keep an eye on DS9's Siddig;
granted, he's been sort of limited to playing the dignified
Arab in film over the last couple of years, but he's going
to become an important face.
Syriana is messy. But we should all be smart enough
to realize that so is the issue that it tackles. Like it.
Dislike it. But think about it.