Reel Opinions

Sunday, December 11, 2005


For the second time this year, I have come across a movie that made me wish theatrical releases came with an optional writer and/or director's commentary. The first time it was Stay, an overly confusing thriller that was one long riddle without enough answers to its own questions. Now, along comes Syriana - a movie that has been praised to the skies by just about every major critic, and reeks of self-importance. There's no denying that the film's topic is a timely one, especially with oil and gas prices going through the roof this past year alone. But, writer-director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) has crafted a movie so convoluted, so confusing, and sometimes just plain boring that it's almost a fight to stay interested for its entire just over 2 hour running time. The film does have a few scenes that spark our attention, and fools us into thinking the movie's finally starting to pick up (the most notable being an almost impossible to watch torture scene), but then the movie goes back to its old tricks of boring the audience into an almost sedated state and generally giving us very little to care about.

The film's overly complex plot has something to do with a huge merger between one of the biggest Texas oil companies in America and a smaller competitor. The competitor came across vast amounts of product in a Middle Eastern land, and the big company wants in on it. The nation that both of these companies are after is run by an elderly and ailing Prince (Nadim Sawalha), who has a long-time connection with the United States. The time for the Prince to pick an heir to replace him is fast approaching, and all signs seem to hint that he will be choosing his eldest son, Nasir (Alexander Sidding). Unfortunately for the U.S., Nasir has less friendly relations with the country than his father. In order to keep up relations, the CIA is making plans behind the scenes to assassinate Nasir, so that his younger brother (Akbar Kurtha) - whose rule over the country would mean better things for the U.S., can take over instead.

This plot would be pretty simple and straightforward if it were not for writer-director Gaghan's decision to look at this plot from various points of views that are often so underwritten and underdeveloped, that it sometimes takes the movie much longer than it should to explain to us what role they play. Amongst the characters, we get an aging CIA agent (George Clooney), who is seen as somewhat of a relic of the past, and he pretty much knows it, too. There's also an American energy analyst (Matt Damon), who threatens to tear his family apart by supporting a plan and people that may have led to the accidental death of his young son. We follow a lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) who is investigating the oil merger. And, of course, there's a vast parade of shady oil tycoons (played by a variety of great actors such as Christopher Plummer, Tim Blake Nelson, and Chris Cooper) who are naturally depicted as being over the top greedy and evil, giving these great actors absolutely nothing to latch onto, since their characters are so one-note.

As I mentioned in my introduction, Mr. Gaghan wrote the screenplay to the film Traffic - a much better film that shares a lot of similarities with Syriana. That film too took a look at a timely problem sweeping the nation (drug trafficking), and told the story through a large variety of different points of views. Traffic was a great film, one of the best that year, because despite the large cast of main characters, they were all developed in such a way that we grew to care about many of them very deeply, even the more shady characters in the story. That film expertly juggled its multiple storylines in such a way so that it never seemed gimmicky or confusing to the audience. This is a stark contrast to Syriana, which is so underdeveloped and disjointed that you almost need a road map in order to follow along with the plot's various twists and turns. We get a very little glimpse of the human side of the characters in this one. They're simply "talking heads" who talk way too long about shady dealings behind the scenes in the oil industry. In order for the audience to care about these characters, we need to know more about them. Unfortunately, the film keeps us at a curious distance. Aside from George Clooney's character having a strained relationship with his son, and Matt Damon's character dealing with his moral issues and his family, none of these characters have the slightest shred of humanity or characterization. They just talk endlessly about the world's problems, while giving us very little reason for us to understand their views or their positions.

Because of the film's decision to simply have its big name cast mainly just sit and stand around, doing nothing but talking about the same things over and over, Syriana rapidly becomes deadly boring to all but the most forgiving and open-minded audience member. During the film's seemingly never-ending 126 minute running time, very little happens. The only highlights I can think of are the previously mentioned torture scene, and the climax. And even the ending kind of loses weight when you think back on it since there seems to be no way that George Clooney's character could have been able to know what was going to happen. The trailers for this film (and the mysterious rave reviews) may try to fool you into thinking that this is a riveting suspense drama about shady dealings in the oil industry, but it's really nothing more than big name actors playing characters with no characterization whatsoever just standing around, and talking non-stop about said shady dealings. Very little ever happens, and when it does, it makes us all the more depressed when the movie goes back to its old tricks because we almost think for a little bit that things are starting to pick up. The film's disjointed storyline, which frequently jumps around with little rhyme or reason, helps matters even less. Instead of being just bored, we are bored and confused.

You almost have to wonder why the filmmakers went to such lengths to hire such an A-list cast for this film when they are given so little to do. In fact, some of the actors such as Chris Cooper and William Hurt are used so little that you almost forget that they're even in the movie. Aside from Clooney and Damon, the actors fail to make any impression at all, because their characters are so underwritten as to be almost invisible (Jeffrey Wright), or they are so one-note that they don't even seem human to begin with (pretty much anyone who plays an oil tycoon in this movie). The only reason why Clooney and Damon leave an impression with us is because they are the only ones who we get to see outside of the main plot. They have lives and people not involved with the oil industry, and we get to learn more about them, and way they are the way they are. Everyone else is simply a cog in the massive machine that is this film's plot, and it's quite clear that the script doesn't care about them, so why should we?

Syriana is the worst kind of Oscar bait. It wants you to think it's important, but if you strip away the winding plot, the A-list cast, and the beautiful cinematography, you are left with a lot less than the movie thinks it has. Maybe if the film had a smaller cast, and made more of an effort to get us attached to the characters involved, this could have been a very good movie. As it stands, Syriana is simply a shell of a good movie. It just doesn't know how to get us interested enough for us to be involved. Many critics see this film as one of the most important movie events of the year, and worthy of endless praise. I simply see an Emperor without any clothes.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD on!



Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger