Syriana (2005) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running Time: 126 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Siddig, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Amanda Peet, Tim Blake Nelson, Nadim Sawalha, William Hurt, Mark Strong
Director: Steven Gaghan
Screenplay: Steven Gaghan (based on the book, "See No Evil, Hear No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism)
Gripping in parts, convoluted and stagnant in others, Syriana is screenwriter Steven Gaghan's (Rules of Engagement, Havoc) attempt to provide an insider's peek into the varying forces at play in the continuing Middle Eastern oil and terrorism struggles, similar to his Oscar-winning script written for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. Although he does succeed on his own in making a respectable film here, perhaps he could have taken a page or two from Soderbergh himself on how to make a political thriller more interesting and thematically resonant, as the messages of the film will most likely be lost on those that most need to hear them, namely the majority of the American public at large.
Sadly, this ends up being a political thriller that will probably appeal only to those that are already on the side of Gaghan in the indictment of the United States and its complicity in keeping the Middle East chaotic, all in the interest of supremacy in the energy field. When we watch the evening news, we might all see the by-products of these actions in terrorist acts and anonymous assassinations, but for the most part, we're usually not given enough information to be able to connect the dots into the hows and whys of just what is motivating all of the parties involved to engage in such heinous activities. We're left to assume there are "evil doers" in the world that seek deaths for no particular reason, or at the very least, that they are radical fundamentalists that will attack any society that is seen as espousing beliefs contrary to their views. If only it were so simple.
To properly appreciate Syriana, one does have to have a familiarity with the make-up of the Middle East in the way things are run, a knowledge of the politics involved in the running of billion-dollar oil companies, an understanding of the duplicitous nature of the Central Intelligence Agency, and an awareness of terrorist organizations that would openly recruit young men that would kill themselves for the sake of a cause they may or may not be fully aware they are assisting.
I'm afraid I'll sound condescending here, but if you don't at least follow the news, you probably are going to find Syriana to be a tedious watch, and that's a shame in itself, as ignorance to world events is what greases the wheels of the grand machine that keeps corporations fat and happy, politicians in their pockets, foreign regimes in a constant state of perpetual flux, and the standard of living for millions of people near destitute in what should be the among the wealthiest nations on the face of the Earth.
My apologies if this film review is beginning to sound like an editorial rather than a movie review, as I don't meant to preach, but I just feel that Syriana is a good film worth seeing, except that I'm frustrated by the small segment of filmgoers that I can recommend it to.
Getting back to basics, the performances are top-notch, with an especially interesting acting turn for George Clooney (Ocean's Twelve, Intolerable Cruelty), who gained 30 pounds to play his role here. Gaghan's direction utilizes a steadicam approach that gives an authentic feel to the proceedings, while the naturalistic acting propels the drama into playing like actual world events. The only major downside is that those watching the film have to maintain diligent attention, as well as make some educated assumptions, into just what's going on during certain scenes, as it seems that Gaghan, perhaps because the film needed to be trimmed a bit for brevity, doesn't always give us enough information to know everyone's proper motivations.
Although I'm giving Syriana a solid recommendation for those that are interested in the subject matter, I do wish that the film could have been presented in a way (like Traffic) that would make those that don't already know the global situation understand just what's going on in this part of the world, and how it does indeed affect all of us in very significant ways. Alas, I suppose it's not the role of the filmmaker to inform us, as that is something we should be doing ourselves, so it's hard to be annoyed at Gaghan himself for making a purist form of political thriller. It's a shame that he's made a movie that does little but preach to the choir.
©2005 Vince Leo