Sunday, March 05, 2006

Review - Syriana

This is quickly becoming the year of George Clooney. After the rapturous acclaim which greeted his Goodnight, and Good Luck, he has followed it up by co-producing and starring in Syriana, another ultra-serious, politically-driven film. These combined efforts have garnered a number of Oscar nominations and people have been falling over themselves to bestow the highest praise on Clooney for his intelligence, bravery and vision.

In the publicity which has surrounded both Goodnight, and Good Luck and Syriana, Clooney has stated in a number of interviews that he aspires to make the kind of films produced by directors like Sidney Lumet, Alan J Pakula and Sydney Pollack in the early 70’s. However, there is a big difference between those films and Syriana which prevents Stephen Gaghan’s film from reaching those heights. Films like Three Days of the Condor, Network and The Parallax View
all made their points while also managing to make narrative sense and maintain the viewer‘s interest; something
Syriana fails to do.

Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for adapting the Channel 4 miniseries Traffik for Stephen Soderbergh, and Syriana is a similarly multi-stranded affair. Once again Gaghan attempts to weave together the stories of a number of disparate characters, with the multinational oil industry providing the connecting thread. There’s Bob Barnes (Clooney), a jaded CIA field agent working in the Middle East who begins to question the morality of his actions. We are also introduced to Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an oil broker who takes advantage of a personal tragedy to become the personal advisor to an Arab prince (Alexander Siddig). Elsewhere, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is a lawyer charged with investigating the legitimacy of a merger between two US oil giants; and if all that wasn’t enough then there’s also a subplot concerning two unemployed Pakistani youths who become involved with a group of Islamic extremists.

In addition to that, Gaghan manages to squeeze in roles for Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer and Tim Blake-Nelson (overacting again) as three of the shady businessmen involved in this merger; Amanda Peet turns up as Woodman’s long-suffering wife, William Hurt appears out of nowhere as some sort of Deep Throat character, and Mark Strong has a chilling cameo.

With Traffic, Gaghan did a terrific job in adapting a very complex six-part series for the big screen, but he would have been well advised to do the opposite with Syriana. There is the potential for a great miniseries here, and the various plot strands could only have benefited from being given an hour or so in which to develop. Instead, they are all crammed into the space of two hours resulting in a stodgy, unwieldy piece of filmmaking.

Gaghan has all the right ingredients here but he has no idea how to shape them into anything resembling a cogent narrative. The story jumps from Washington to Beirut to Geneva, to various other locations, and back again with head-spinning speed; and as a result I spent the first few moments of every scene trying to figure where everyone was, who they were talking to, what they were talking about and why. After a while I began to long for the kind of clear-eyed direction Soderbergh brought to Traffic. In that film, the complex storyline was reduced to three distinct strands, featuring fully-formed characters we could develop an emotional engagement with.

There are no such characters in Syriana, just a series of ciphers and mouthpieces. We are plunged right into the action with nothing to hold onto and none of the characters here are given room to breath. It’s not the actors’ fault - they mostly do fine work - but it’s Gaghan’s habit of flitting from one subject to the next while never letting the action settle and never giving us the chance to know these people. The nominal lead, I suppose, is Clooney who has bagged an Oscar nomination for gaining weight and a beard. He’s fine in the role, and his character is probably the closest thing the film has to a moral centre, although it’s well into the second half before he has an attack of conscience and decides to act, and by that time the film had lost my interest.

In fact, despite all of the talented actors on show here, the only performance to really make an impact on me was provided by Mark Strong, who does more in his five-minute appearance than most of the cast are given a chance to do.

Syriana looks impressive, with Robert Elswit’s hazy cinematography giving every scene an interesting look, and Gaghan has picked up an number of Soderbergh’s elliptical editing effects which he employs here effectively. In fact, much of Syriana is brilliantly directed with Gaghan showing real flair in a number of scenes, but the parts never add up to a whole. Ultimately, I was left wondering what Syriana really had to say about the world we live in. We see that the oil business is corrupt, that the West is exploiting the Middle East for their own gains - but this is hardly news. I came out from the film with the same understanding of the oil business and the situation in the Middle East as I had when I went in; no more and no less.

Gaghan thankfully manages to inject some dramatic impetus into Syriana late on, resorting to the age-old ‘race against time’ trick to build tension in the final act. But I was so far outside the drama at that point that nothing was going to drag me back in. Syriana is a horrible mess; its depth is an illusion and it spends two long hours hopping around the globe in self-important fashion, randomly losing subplots as it travels, and never saying anything of significance. Gaghan presents us with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but then keeps moving them around as we try to assemble them; and by the time he finally began putting things together in the last half hour, I just didn’t care anymore.