A-Bubblin' Race War
Syriana / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
There’s a substantial track record of films dealing with politics. Spanning back to classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and All the King’s Men, itself being remade for a 2006 release, all the way through satires like Dr. Strangelove to modern comedies like Wag the Dog and Primary Colors, films often hold a disturbing mirror to the real-life political climate. In fact, that’s more of a marketing liability than people think. Hitting too close to home, being too accurate, or playing off contemporary turmoil often makes it harder to judge a film for its merits. Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors was a good movie, but in 1998, the story of a philandering Southern governor ascending to the presidency by destroying his marriage was far too current to do anything but be promptly labeled as an overly derivative version of the evening news. Similarly, Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, also from 1998, followed too closely on the heels of the actual headline conflicts in Bosnia for audiences to feel comfortable watching a movie about an administration that fabricates a war in order to distract from the president’s sexual indiscretions. But a few years later, those satires can be seen for the sharp stories they are; to many, fabricating a war would be preferable to the 2,100+ body count coming out of Iraq.
This is the soaring strength but, ultimately, the weakness of Syriana, the directorial debut from Stephen Gaghan, who scripted 2000’s cocaine-biz epic Traffic. Based on the book by former CIA operative Robert Baer, Syriana mainly focuses on an impending merger between the Killen and Connex oil companies and the lawyer, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), investigating the transaction on behalf of the federal government; the interaction between Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an energy analyst in Geneva, and Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), a reformer in a Persian Gulf country who wants to revolutionize his nation and its oil exports; and the international work of Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA agent growing increasingly disillusioned with the reasons for American involvement in the Middle East. (The story lines are a good deal more convoluted than that, but attempting to adequately explain them, even in brief, would take as much time as it would just to watch the movie.)
But the film is ultimately about the U.S. government and how that government will stop at nothing to ensure the future of its business interests. About this, Gaghan is abundantly clear: The American government is not above selling out its own operatives or orchestrating the assassinations of foreign officials or engineering the economies of smaller nations around the world to preserve its own welfare. Obviously, the story carries a little more weight than other swipes at the establishment since it draws its material from Baer, who came in from the cold when he re-evaluated what he was doing for the CIA. Additionally, given the American government’s history with Native Americans, African-Americans, and pretty much anyone standing between Uncle Sam and whatever he wants, it’s easy to imagine that brutally sad human stories like the ones in Syriana are happening every day.
Beginning with Barnes in Tehran, the story quickly bops around the globe from Georgetown to Houston to Geneva to Spain to who knows how many other locations. Gaghan cuts from Holiday and the oil execs to the dirt-poor migrant workers toiling in Nasir’s gas drilling facilities, then over to Nasir himself, who soon becomes a target of the U.S. government, but not because he’s a terrorist. It’s because he offers drilling rights to a more competitive Chinese bidder over the Americans, and screwing with our oil is, he should know, a pretty stupid idea.
That’s what makes watching Syriana different from a typical filmgoing experience. Instead of an obvious departure from reality, or even an allegory set in a recognizable but still fundamentally independent future, like The Parallax View or Zardoz (OK, maybe not Zardoz), the film plays like a frightening, elongated version of the color-coded threatdowns and press conferences with which we’re daily bombarded. The exploits, faults, and lives of the characters in Syriana sadly hit home. Its biggest selling point is its despairing plausibility; it’s a big, complex, smart, serious movie, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
Gaghan again weaves a multilayered story using a large ensemble cast, and they’re all outstanding. Clooney learned how to play corporate ball a while back, and has been continually leveraging his clout to star in and produce better films, and his work here is first-rate. He proved in Good Night, and Good Luck that he has the confidence to blend into the larger framework of the story, and though he has since called the 30+ pounds he gained for the Barnes role “pretty stupid,” the pudge and the beard help him sink further into the role of the rejected schlub and one-time murderer. Similarly, as Woodman, Damon once again proves that he’s miles beyond his one-time partner Ben Affleck; a few more roles like this, playing actual men with flaws and emotions, and he could turn into an actor. Chris Cooper is spot-on as the folksy yet evil Killen exec, and Tim Blake Nelson is frightening as a Southern senator in bed with the business; his testimony denying any wrongdoing will give you 19 kinds of déjà vu. And why don’t more people know and love Jeffrey Wright?
Of the film’s many convergent plots, though, perhaps the strongest is one spoken entirely in Urdu/Hindi and Arabic, involving two teenage boys laid off from Nasir’s drilling fields and alienated in a hostile area. They find respect at a local madrassa, where they are instructed that “the West has failed … democracy has failed … Christianity has failed.” They become drawn into the way of life offered to them by a group of extremists within the school, and Gaghan skillfully manages to convey that lifestyle’s appeal without glorifying its ultimate consequences. There are no answers here, and not even many questions, just a brutal portrait of the facts. “This is a bad guy,” Barnes’ fellow agents try to convince him about one his assigned targets, but Gaghan seems to be saying that he who is without sin should cast the first surface-to-air missile. Syriana is one tangled mass of lives, full of people in pain who often spurn the redemption they need or pursue it only to have it snatched away. It’s a powerful film, but a cold one.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.