I would have stayed longer to listen to more and laugh, but I always buy the Big Corellian sized Diet Coke, so I had to pee like a wild Indian. Regardless of the urinary habits of hyperactive Native Americans (or drunken Irish internet film critics for that matter), the goobers I pooped through Syriana with aren't alone. Stephen Gaghan's Syriana has been hailed and condemned by equally ranked critics. It even made an Entertainment Weekly "Bottom Five" list. Now, judging from some of the tripe Entertain Me Weakly has given good reviews to, this could either mean Syriana is really bad, or this fact might speak well for Gaghan's work!
The international oil trade is the backdrop for this political thriller and is the tar baby to which all our varied characters adhere. Legal Eagle Big Wig Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) sends young and hungry Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) in to investigate (and/ or aid) the merger of two enormous American oil companies (one headed up by Chris Cooper's stark raving Jimmy Pope, one by Robert Foxworth's all too relaxed Tommy Barton) who are just now finding out about that they've lost a lucrative drilling contract to a Chinese company.
Meanwhile energy analyst and cable news staple Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) attempts to strike up a deal with the very Arabic Royal who has pissed off the aforementioned American Oilers, Alexander Siddig (El Fadil)'s Prince Nasir Al-Subaai. It isn't long before Woodman's dilligence costs him some of those proverbial "ultimate prices" and damn near permanently alienates him from his wife (Amanda Peet's Julie).
The true globe-trotting inverted hero in all of this is George Clooney's CIA Agent at large, Bob Barnes. Bob's loyal soldier cum confused and dogged patriot is the proverbial cog in the mighty machine whose tendrils wrap around the globe (or at least as far as the Middle East). Like any "part" the Bobenator can be replaced when he gets rusty. Much of him wants a normal life with his normal wife and son in tow. Much of him doesn't know how to make that work! In his search, this red white and blue man without a country will seek advice from mystery men like William Hurt's Stan, help from mad outlaws like Mark Strong's Mussawi and heaven-knows-what from Mr. Full Circle himself: Christopher Plummer. Amazingly he never does get together with Tim Blake Nelson's Danny Dalton for a Soggy Bottom Boys concert. I guess "Pete" had a previous engagement. Damn!
Did you get all that? Everything's connected you see! Yeah, I know! I kept expecting Susan Harris to pop out and say "Confused? You won't be after this episode of Soap!" There appears to be a heavy handed (but believeable) suggestion that the real controller of the world is the Dollar, and an even heavier handed (and less believeable) notion that terrorism is understandable in this harsh wonderland. The "Saddam Hussein" character is a benevolent and romantic-looking prince who speaks in sensitive prose about doing what is best for his suffering people, while the Americans mostly appear conniving, loud and selfish. The question of who the real puppetmasters are never quite leaves the lips of Syriana. All we know is that they're very rich, very powerful, very selfish, and don't have our (or Stephen's) best interests at heart. The final result feels like a less compelling The Manchurian Candidate thrust like a square peg into the round hole of Gaghan's own Traffic.
One of the reasons Syriana doesn't quite work (or at least might not for some people) is that its "message" interprets as an "agenda" and is all too plain, as if this were a celluloid soap box for writer/ director Stephen Gaghan (author of Traffic and The Alamo). His film manages the odd feat of being both obscure and obvious at the same time, as if it's very clear what he's trying to say, even though he's saying it in a mumbled, stuttering pig-latin. He comes across as a man who just might think he's Jonathan Swift, using nuanced satire to teach the pilgrims the error of their era. However Gagan's approach is cool and moody, but is sledgehammer nonetheless, using the impossibly blatant and overtly amplified to prove his point. I applaud the effort, and generally agree with his view point, but the Ice-T song "Straight up Nigga" was more subtle than this, kiddies.
There will, of course, be those who say this film is "brilliant" or "genius". It's not quite that, but does carry a certain air of pretention that dares not be questioned. There is, nonetheless, much to appreciate in this film. The Oscar-Nominated screenplay, though utltimately unfullfilling and unsuccessful, does have some piecemeal sparks of inspiration, showing what the film could have been. I've said before that I'm not on this whole George Clooney band wagon, however, he is excellent in this role, and isn't simply cloning all his other (singular) parts again. His scenes are the hardest to watch, and not just during the moments of bloody violence we see him in. His pathos is worth the ticket, even if he had to Executive Produce to get it there. Bravo.
Syriana isn't quite the educational triumph it could have been, and it doesn't truly succeed at what it sets out to do. Most left wingers (like me) will be concerned with the varied sugar coating and caricaturing, while conservatives will likely walk right out of this film thinking of Michael Moore as a moderate in contrast. Whether you find this "terrible" or "brilliant" is completely up to you, and perhaps it's a polite nod in Gaghan's direction that so many people can come out of this movie with such a wide span of ideas on it. Me? I like it, but I could see through it like a silk slip on a Penthouse Model. Three Stars out of Five for Syriana, a film that could have been great, but manages "good" well enough. Those who don't have brains the size of the Hilton Dowery will be confused and bored by this one, while the truly smart out there will probably find this one to be just a little bit too heavy handed, obvious and slow! At the same time that latter group might just be wanting to get the license plate number of that "Message" that just went by. So until Fox and Warners team up to make Aliens versus the Predator Unmaned Spy Drone Aircraft, I'll see you in the next reel.
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