December, 2005, Drama


            This one opens around the country on December 9th, but it's been playing to packed houses here in New York and in L.A. for over a week now, thanks to the extraordinary reviews it's garnered from critics in both cities. Writer Stephan Gaghan, (who won an Oscar for condensing a 6 hour-long British television thriller into Stephen Soderberg's  Traffic 5 years ago) directs this time from his own original script. Once again employing the interlocking-story structure he used in Traffic, Gagman weaves an extraordinarily complex tale of knavery, greed and violence in the international oil business, with bristling dialogue, superbly-edited pacing and a handful of masterful performances. But be forewarned; the only antidote to Gagan's grim-faced cinematic juggernaut requires muttering, as you leave the theater-- "it's just fiction, only fiction."

Syriana is all about oil; who has it, who wants it, and what lengths they’re willing to go to in getting it. Gaghan's intricately constructed script tracks the apparently unrelated activities of a CIA operative, (George Clooney) dabbling in stolen Stinger missiles, a fledgling investment banker, (Matt Damon) trying to forge a consulting relationship with the son of a Middle Eastern sheik and a mid-level attorney in a white-shoe law firm, (Jeffery Wright) who's been tapped to assist in the merger of two American oil companies. As each pursues his perceived objective, the plot bobs and weaves towards an increasingly ominous conclusion; a good part of the fun here lies in attempting to guess the precise conditions under which this trio of intensely committed drones will finally recognize the masters they're really serving and the impact each will have on the others' lives. 

Their performances resonate with telling plausibility; overweight and bearded, Clooney's rumpled field-man can't quite grasp that he's been maneuvered from duping others into being duped himself. (His fear about being tortured is heightened by the incredulity that it's actually happening to him.)  Wright's fastidious probing of the deliberately shrouded contractual details in his character's assignment is a study in masterfully self-contained displacement; it masks the lawyer's intense desire, as an African American, to gain admittance to the powerful clique that runs his firm whatever the cost in personal corruption. Matt Damon parries his character's explosive self-loathing with lacerating analyses of the oil-rich kingdoms in the Gulf, which in turn are met with scathing responses about America's self-serving interests delivered by the Arab prince who's hired him.

Christopher Plummer, William Hurt Amanda Peet and a handful of Hollywood's A-list supporting actors including Chris Cooper, Robert Foxworth and Tim Blake Nelson round out the cast. For sheer chutzpah, Nelson's self-justifying oration on bribery rivals Ollie North's demagoguery on his role in the Iran-Contra scandal which unmasked the Regan Administration a smoke and mirrors political snow job. Chris Cooper epitomizes the brazenly macho appetites of self-made billionaires long since grown accustomed to always getting their way, while Plummer's smarmy condescension allows him to manipulate both client and subordinate alike with odious charm. Each delivers lines of such delicious venality your reaction may well be one of paranoia; the director urges you to forget what you see on the television news shows and read in the papers as he introduces the people who really run the world. As Gaghan jumps frenetically from Iranian deserts to placid urban Swiss parks to the homes of Texas oil barons and Foggy Bottom movers and shakers, the seemingly random threads of his tale culminate in the simultaneously-executed mayhem reminiscent of the final retribution sequence in The Godfather. Syriana is pulse-pounding stuff and the director beats on his theme of universal malfeasance as though he was playing a cinematic kettle-drum.


Yet the large cast and labyrinthine plot result in too many orations; at times the dialogue resembles verbal position papers rather than authentic interpersonal conversations. Tart lines and superb delivery rescue these characters from caricature while rendering them curiously impersonal. Gaghan doesn't spend enough time with any one of them to permit much identification; despite the screenplay's authentic feel, these characters wind up speaking for Gaghan, not themselves.

The storyline itself isn't flawless; it leads Clooney to his final confrontation with inexplicable ease and speed and the death of Damon's oldest son is an unnecessarily distracting contrivance tossed in to provide sympathy for a character whose actions don't deserve it. The inter-cutting of the climatic finale feels contrived-- but there's great intelligence in nearly every line of dialogue, which serves the film's breakneck pace perfectly. 

Some grasp of current geo-political issues helps here; with deliberately polemical intent, this gifted writer/director has a lot to get off his chest.  With keening indignation, he warns of sinister collusions between giant international corporations, corruption among the oil-producing states of the Middle East and the complicity of the United States government in affairs to which it cannot openly admit. Gaghan's film is to fiction what Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is to documentary; you'll leave the theater with the impression that the world is so full of totally craven power brokers that the rest of us ought to barricade ourselves at home with bottled water and shotguns to await the coming Armageddon. His bad guys are obviously malicious and his good ones sadly ineffective. 

Unfortunately, the real world is full of people in positions of power who are genuinely convinced their conduct is the stuff of commendable probity. In Gaghan's view, those types wind up consciously and endlessly manipulating the vulnerable, which he finds both offensive and tragic. It's certainly more difficult to demonstrate that leadership too often comes from those capable of believing that they're acting with the loftiest of aspirations and the most laudable of motives even as they employ the most offensive of means. Accomplishing that task would have created something really notable; as entertaining as Syriana is, taking it as seriously as Gaghan intends would be a mistake. In the end, this is a premium-blend, high-octane thriller, not a particularly accurate or insightful take on the current global situation. 

Despite Syriana's many accomplishments, you’d have to be naïve to take this gifted storyteller's yarn at face value. That said, you're not likely to spend a more exciting couple of hours in a movie theater all year.

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