Syriana is Arabic for pretentious long movie. The dramatic telling of US Policy in the Middle East tries to blend many fractured stories together into one gigantic mess of a picture. Despite fine performances the stories never come together, nor are we ever presented a compelling reason to care about a single person or event. More of a lecture than a movie, and a rather boring one at that.
Syriana, in it’s own way, is a character study. The problem is rather than a flesh and blood character the focus of the study is the abstract and multi-faceted US Policy in the Middle East. While I think this might make for a fascinating documentary or book (it’s based off of Robert Baer’s See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism) as a movie I found it boring, hard to follow, impossible to care about, and overly pretentious. Despite good performances from most of the cast all I got from this film was a wasted two hours that felt much more like five.
The movie involves several different threads that only are related in that they are facets or results of the US Policy in the Middle East. We get George Clooney, who despite what trailers may have led you to believe is not the star of the film but only one of the ensemble, as a CIA expert in the region mistrusted by his co-workers for his unerring honesty. Of what he is actually an expert on is never fully explored or explained as his story is only about 35 minutes of the running time.
We also have a story involving an oil company under investigation for illegal activities. Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper and Jeffery Wright head this storyline. Wright plays an ambitious up and comer willing to deal and sacrifice to get ahead. Once again we get characters and story that if fully developed could have made for the backbone of a strong movie but here are relegated to about 40 minutes of compressed time. There is also a side-story about Wright and his character’s father which is hamfistedly hinted at several times but again never satisfactorily explored.
There is the story of two Iranian brothers who are out of work and are taken in by Islamic extremists in hopes that they might join the cause. Truthfully told this storyline never worked for me since again the characters haven’t been explored fully we don’t care if they find God, become terrorists or open a fruit stand in the middle of Mardi Gras. This story takes up about 40 minutes of the movie.
There is also the story with Alexander Siddig in the film’s best performance. He plays the revolutionary prince who wants to transform his country into a stable democracy which the US will never allow to happen. His story intersects with investment officer Matt Damon who loses something precious at one of the Emir’s hotels and is befriended at hired by Siddig. Damon’s character is the only character whose home life is explored in the film and Amanda Peet gives a good understated performance as his wife.
There are many good performances in the film; if the story and characters had been developed and the focus had been a more personal and intensive character study I would have been much happier. Siddig, who I’ve been a fan of for years, gives the film’s best performance as the man who would be king. Prince Nassir is a complex character that I enjoyed watching. The other performance that stands out for me is Matt Damon as the Swiss investment officer. It’s not surprising that these two provide the best scene in the film where they discuss business and the death of Damon’s son.
The movie is broken up into several different stories that are only peripherally related. The film seeks to take a look at the effect of US policy in the Middle East which is all well and good, but it goes about it by setting up an abstract main character like US policy which is more important to the director than any of the individual stories. Because of this all the stories suffer. We are constantly being pulled out from one story into another, back and forth, not allowing us to fully understand or inhabit the characters and their situations.
The film has quite a bit to say, too much if you ask me. After a short action scene we are moved into a period introducing character after character as each is explained and set up through words not actions. It’s information overflow. Writer/Director Stephen Gaghan knew he had too much to cover and this is a poor excuse for trying to shove it all down the audience’s throat at once. We get a board meeting where oil executives talk about the situation in the Middle East. We get CIA talking about the situation in the Middle East. We get Damon’s character giving interviews and talking about the situation in the Middle East. We get two brothers talking about their situation. Yap, yap, yap.
By the time the movie shows us anything most of us have tuned out or fallen asleep. The early lecture scenes are not helped by the shaky hand held photography at slightly upward angles. If I didn’t know better I would assume they were filmed by a midget with cerebral palsy.
There are only two scenes that actually create any audience reaction (that’s not much for a two hour film). The first is the desert scene between Damon and Siddig. The second is a torture scene that is neither well set up nor executed as we are yanked away from it and shoved back into another story just as things were getting interesting.
Also, for characters that travel across the globe we see precious little of them doing so. Characters apppear in Washington or Geneva and in the next scene they are walking around the desert. There are numerous little problems like this that drove me nuts that I can only assume are in the film due to the editing process of trying to get this film close to the two hour mark.
I’ve seen three movies (Syriana, Traffic, and Abandon) written by Gaghan and I’m not a fan. I find his films to be too abstract and impersonal, all issue and no emotion, and lacking any meaning or relevant point. This film wastes good performances in an attempt to try an be a morality tale or pseudo-documentary of the US policy in the Middle East. The problem is we already understand that the US policy is screwed up in that region and the film adds no new information or solution to the problem. A waste of money, time, and talent that never comes close to achieving anything worthy of what it took to make.