Review: Syriana

Posted by: Dean Kish  //  December 9, 2005 @ 11:59am

Filed under: Reviews

Emerging director Stephen Gaghan is best known for writing the screenplay for the Academy Award-winning film Traffic but he also wrote and directed the dreadful film Abandon with Katie Holmes, and also wrote the disaster The Alamo.

Now Gaghan dives back into the trenches as he attempts to do deliver a film similar to Traffic, but dealing with oil company conspiracies opposed to the drug trade.

On the varying fronts in Syriana, the film seems to centre on four interlocking stories. The first story is Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a washed-up CIA operative that is trying to uncover some of the truths hidden during his time in the Middle East; next is an upcoming oil broker (Matt Damon) who is trying to negotiate a giant deal at the expense of his family; third is a corporate lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) who uncovers corruption in the highest offices of the oil magnates; and finally a Pakistani teen (Mazhar Munir) who becomes caught up in the twisted world of a charismatic recruiter.

I guess I am alone when I found that Syriana was lacking on so many different fronts. It was really hard to find the emotional centre in this film. I am wondering if there really was one. There are a lot of different emotions sprawled throughout, but none of them connected to the film's central theme.

In Traffic, we could see how drugs could destroy lives and the raw emotions from that decline. It is really difficult to see how oil directly destroys lives. You can't really have a scene of a man in a crackhouse snorting crude out of a can. Because there isn't this intricate connection between the film's core subject matter and the raw emotions presented, the film feels hollow and without purpose.

Then there is the film's core unto itself. Is it really all that shocking that oil barons are corrupt? I mean, if you haven't been living in a cave for the past 5 years, we all know about rising oil prices and how we are bound to strip the world clean of the greatest national resource man has ever known. Is it really all that shocking?

Yes, eventually it will be an all-out war for oil and yes, there were ulterior motives for the U.S. to invade Iraq and finally yes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The spy and political intrigue scenes for me in this film felt flat and at times utterly vague. I felt that these scenes should have been gripping and almost sinister, and I have to admit that I liked similar scenes a lot more in the Jack Ryan film series (ie: Patriot Games).

Don't get me wrong, I liked some of the acting in the film. I felt Clooney was effective but not as riveting as I would have liked. I actually liked Damon more than Clooney, because he was able to show emotion. I also really enjoyed the performance of Alexander Siddig, who seemed to bring a different side to the Arab viewpoint. Siddig was probably my favorite thing about the film.

This was a huge project for a first-time director to take on, and I think Gaghan really lacked the intricate spark of Steven Soderbergh to pull this thing off. (3 out of 5) So Says the Soothsayer.

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