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SYRIANA (R) (2005)

Warner Bros.

Official Site

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Producers: Jennifer Fox, Georgia Kacandes, Michael Nozik

Written by: Stephen Gaghan; suggested by See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, by Robert Baer

Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Mazhar Munir, Tim Blake Nelson, Amanda Peet, Christopher Plummer, Alexander Siddig

Rating:


Writer/director Stephen Gaghan wants us to have no doubt that his new film Syriana is no mere entertainment, but in fact a very serious film, about grave matters that are rarely depicted in American films. Unfortunately, his film doesn’t live up to the gravitas of its subject matter, which is really a shame, because it could have been a special film, it could have been important. But ultimately Syriana is just a hectoring, didactic bit of self-righteous agitprop.

The subject of the film is oil, the devil’s excrement as they call it in Venezuela. Oil is perhaps worse than gold in that it can corrupt the collective soul of an entire society, and Gaghan certainly sees the United States as being poisoned and poisonous. Syriana is an ambitious indictment of U.S. foreign policy. Like Traffic (the Oscar-winning film Gaghan scripted), Syriana is an ensemble film with numerous characters and subplots. Primarily it deals with a grizzled CIA veteran (Clooney), a reform-minded prince (Siddig) and his young American advisor (Damon), and a lawyer (Wright) trying to finesse a shady oil merger.

Gaghan won a lot of admirers for scripting a two-hour film version out of the original mini-series “Traffik.” I was not one of those admirers. To me Syriana and Traffic share many of the same flaws: They both felt rushed, the storylines and characters underdeveloped. As a writer (and this is most certainly a writer’s picture), Gaghan’s main interest seems to be dialogue. He wants to seduce us with the patter of diplomatic banter, and fetishizes the vernacular. There’s hardly a silent moment in the entire film. Characters spout off reams of dialogue, constantly giving exposition on events, or pontificating about how things are in the “real world.” Many of the characters in the film seem to be graduates of the Gordon Gecko school of realpolitik. “Greed is good,” “corruption is why we win,” and all we really need is the “illusion of justice.” Are the villains of the real world actually so self-righteous? I don’t know, but I have to say that for me there’s nothing more obnoxious than the feeling of being browbeaten by movie.

Clooney’s world-weary CIA agent Bob Barnes has potential that’s never realized. The opening scenes of him working a weapon’s deal in modern Tehran are genuinely intriguing, but like everyone else in the hyper-accelerated world of Syriana, his character is given short shift. Jeffrey Wright’s corporate lawyer character is so undernourished that when his character cynically embraces the Washington status quo it lacks any resonance. To be able to compress so much into the standard two-hour Hollywood format may be a lucrative skill, but it doesn’t serve the characters’ credibility or the audience’s understanding.

In one of the film’s half-baked subplots, a naive Pakistani teen, Wasim Khan (Munir), is seduced into becoming a terrorist. Like many of the other characters in Syriana, Wasim Khan feels overly schematic. He never expresses any anger or hatred, and his choice to become a suicide bomber is presented as a logical extension of economic inequalities. In a sequence of leaden irony, the fruition of his doomed plight is counterpoised with a cynical celebration of corporate greed.

—Edward Rholes

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



Pink Floyd

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