2005Director: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright
hen generally mainstream productions delve into current world politics as well as societal issues, they tend to automatically get any over-analytical viewer riled up into heated discussions at the workplace and home alike. The messages of these films are commonly buried beneath layers of overbearing textbook information, and aim to cash in on the audience’s misinterpretation of the conventional for the convoluted. Syriana attempts to execute a reverse-like method, by supplying the audience with an abysmal amount of facts prior to the film’s slow round-table character introduction scenes and the later, more personal exposition. In doing so, director Stephen Gaghan’s inclusion of human interest into the film’s far-reaching central storyline of governmental manipulation feels wedged in as a simple dramatic validation of a puzzle narrative the casual viewer has to labor overtime to solve. All this is quite inappropriate, especially considering that director Gaghan penned the much-more dissectible and expressive Traffic, a film that contains a more fluent story as well as an emotional aspect that feels anything but artificial. Syriana, although effective in a number of areas, is lesser than its cinematic relative upon a grand scale.
The depths in which Syriana goes to properly deal with its integral core ideas and morals firstly reveals that the majority of U.S. citizens are unacquainted not necessarily with the oil crisis’ origins, but with their country’s own current place in the situation. Proposing a multiform, yet often simplistic (depending on the familiarity of the viewer with the material) layout of the overpopulated oil dealings and following consequences warrants a refined, apt inquiry. Unfortunately, the film (somewhere within the initiation of the second act) reveals itself as a primarily inauspicious instigator of discourse and self-identification in times of confusion and war. The film’s opening shot of a large grouping of Arabs trying to pile into a shabby old bus establishes a picture-long mood of cramped struggles for freedom and honesty, so much so that Gaghan allows the actors to look straight at the camera as if to shake a finger and say “You’re not doing enough about this” to each and every viewer. This scene with the bus can also be applied to the film’s interweaving structure, so little breathing room is granted to both characters and viewers that the intended tone could shift from high-priority alert to unnecessarily drowsy.
Noticeably, Gaghan employs the same shaky-camera technique pioneered so effectively in Traffic five years ago. But Syriana is a quieter, darker film, and has no time for colored-lens trickery and special editing techniques. The script is never unsteady, and is constantly streamlining towards a common goal or reaction from all fundamental characters. This is one of the things Syriana gets right, due to solid performances all-around. George Clooney (who packed on thirty pounds for the role and produced a shaggy, unkempt beard) plays used CIA field agent Bob Barnes by projecting an effortless sense of incorruptibility while managing to appear undoubtedly depressed. Matt Damon, surprisingly, is the film’s most audience-friendly character and its emotional core, as he attempts to find out who is to blame for the accidental loss of his young son. His monologues are always devoid of research but full of heart. If Gaghan had refocused the individual goals of his actors into a more satisfying blend of business and personal (without one clearly bullying the other out of the picture), Syriana’s tension levels would be upped a considerable number of notches.
Subplots do emerge from time to time, such as a less-than-carefully planned out examination of the narrow terrorist mindset (which has little direct relation to the rest of the film). A teenager is fired from work at the oil plant, and, by way of involvement in a religious anti-war sect, sees his kamikaze death as a way of replenishing the disappointing life he left behind. Gaghan tediously waltzes through subplots such as these basically to illustrate the effects of the main plot on surrounding cultures, not to enhance whatever sparks of social alterations could be created from such events. Where Traffic failed to be wholly sensible but resonant in theme, Syriana stumbles in fashioning a tale worthy of breaching that frail boundary between being plainly interesting, and enticing viewers into doing some serious investigation on the vital matters they just watched unfold for two hours.