December 8th, 2005
A sprawling political picture, “Syriana” would be a lot more effective if the experience of watching it wasn’t like sitting through a college lecture. Some major, important issues are addressed in the film, and credit must be paid to writer/director Stephen Gaghan for taking on the oil industry. But his direction, while sharply defined, is pokey, wasting a dazzling cast and a ripe opportunity to rile up the political and economic leaders.
Bob (George Clooney) is a veteran C.I.A. operative working out of the Middle East who finds himself hung out to dry by his superiors. Bennett (Jeffrey Wright) is a lawyer investigating a huge oil corporation merger. Bryan (Matt Damon) is an energy analyst looking to aide a Gulf Prince (Alexander Siddig) on his country’s future oil investments. Wasim (Mazhar Munir) is a young migrant worker from Pakistan desperately searching for work, but also falling under the spell of a radical terrorist group. All these men have one thing in common: oil, and the brutal toll that energy resource takes on their lives.
Inspired by the Robert Baer book, “See No Evil,” “Syriana” is a sprawling, multi-country journey into the world of oil production, looking at how deals are made and broken, and the collateral damage that tends to pile up quickly. It has all the pedigree of classic political picture, yet all the dramatic urgency of a C-SPAN afternoon.
If the film sounds like “Traffic: Part Deux,” that’s because, in a small way, it is. Written and directed by “Traffic” screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, “Syriana” follows the same trail of storytelling (following many characters all over the globe), with Gaghan looking to paint a bigger portrait of the problem at hand through smaller examinations. With “Traffic,” Gaghan had Steven Soderbergh to help him imagine the world, but “Syriana” finds Gaghan doing it all on his own. His directorial debut, 2002’s “Abandon,” demonstrated an alarming lack of filmmaking precision; however, mercifully, “Syriana” shows some improvement.
Gaghan has written a very literate script with “Syriana;” it’s a film that requires careful attention, and, if the viewer can spare it, a good working knowledge of Middle East and C.I.A. political traditions. Appropriately, Gaghan directs antiseptically, dealing out each dramatic card carefully, and shows a steady hand arranging the multiple storylines and events. There just isn’t enough juice in the subplots to encourage the audience to sink their teeth into the picture. The two most compelling stories, the ones with Clooney and Damon, are only a small portion of Gaghan’s puzzle, and their moments are all too fleeting. Astonishingly enough, the richest of the film’s plots, the suicide bomber arc, is given the least priority, and clumsily lumbers about, while other films such as “Paradise Now” and “The War Within” have done wonders slipping into the mindset of a newborn terrorist.
Timeliness is on the filmmaker’s side and “Syriana” cuts a vivid picture of the world’s current oil situation; Gaghan’s script manages to be intelligent and incisive without too much speechifying, only showing up here and there. With a slight twist of urgency, “Syriana” could’ve cut to the bone. Instead, Gaghan has slowly deflated a chilling and important topic.
My rating: C+