If you’re looking for a depiction of the ultimate speed-freak liberal’s global-poltical conspiracy theory — with time-dilation and sub-plots that would confuse Steven Hawking — Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005) might just be the movie for you. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in the preservation of natural character development and the progression of a discernable plot along more traditional (and often more absorbing) lines then Syriana is liable to make your blood boil.
While the film packs considerable intellectual and artistic punch, the more correct way of phrasing it would be to say: Syriana packs a multitude of medium punches, some of which land and others which miss entirely. Syriana’s screenplay compliments Gaghan’s prior screenplay Traffic (2000) by adhering to a multiple PoV plot as well as to many flashbacks, cutaways, and sub-plots. Merging such a strategy with an already complex set of themes and issues makes Syriana feel a little bit like an over inflated soft-pretzel, when it should feel more like a steel saber or a flaring Torch of Truth.
While Traffic conveyed a loose sense of inter-connectedness between the many characters and sub-stories by relating them emotionally — if not always logistically — Syriana tackles the much more difficult task of resolving its Gorgon’s-wig of writhing plot-lines into a framework of international politics and economics which, alone could fuel a dozen three-hour documentaries. So, Syriana is bloated, disjointed, non-linear, ambitious, and veers wildly from action-thriller to maudlin character-study — kind of like Moby Dick.
And like Moby Dick, it’s easy to become either so bored, confused, or distracted while following the story’s plot that you’re liable to miss something necessary for understanding the plot as it unfolds. With Moby Dick you might skip a page or a few pages, even, and be OK, if you start fast-forwarding through Syriana, you will be lost as in Amazon jungle lost. It is impossible to summarize the film’s plot. The mind reels at the image of the successive drafts of Syriana’s script. Suffice to say, the movie deals with the impact of Big Oil and Big Money in both political and human terms, much the way Traffic deal with cocaine and drugs.
Oil and drugs and money can all be lumped together in Gaghan’s mythos. That’s as close to a succinct summary of the film’s theme as can be mustered. And while that succinct summary is accepted and believed by the viewer before seeing the film, the film’s conclusions and statements will appear as mana. On the other hand, if one disputes the idea that money, drugs, and oil can, for all intents and purposes, be lumped together as the Holy Trinity of Human Corruption, then nothing that happens in Syriana, whether it be artistically or story-related is going to change the viewer’s original disposition.
As far as a synopsis of the plot? Well, Syriana’s labyrinthian tangle of multiple story-lines makes for difficult paraphrasing,but can be summed up like this: American mega-oil company, Connex, is in danger of losing a big contract to the Chinese. A small Texas oil company called Killen is then awarded rights to drill in Kazakhstan which sets up a crisis for the State Dept adn US Justice Department. Against this backdrop are posited the “real life” characters whose lives are entangled with Bog Oil adn Big Money. CIA agent Barnes (George Clooney) is an “exile” within the CIA — and from his family.
The lawyer, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is inexperienced with Big Oil. The Prince, Nasir, (Alexander Siddig) is ironically an idealist, while Woodman (Matt Damon) is estranged from his own idealistic ideas. And this is the central weakness of Syriana. Where the film aims to be a revelation, it obscures its message under layer after layer of plot and sub-plot; where it aims to be a deep character study dramatizing the impact of greed and corruption on real people, it loses its characters under the complex spider’s-wen of conspiracy associations and political-corporate entanglements that are truly the film’s reason for existence.
It’s impossible to deny that a film like Syriana should have been when it was made. The time is right and ripe for the film-industry to engage with contemporary political issues and those political issues which involve oil, war, terrorism, and international economics are more important in our own time than, perhaps, in any other. That said, Syriana though brave enough as a film to accept the challenge, is simply to contrived, too complex, too sprawling and unfocused to function as a socially relevant film, other than to those who are prepared to devote considerable energy into watching and re-watching the film to capture it’s intricacies.
And, sadly, due to mediocre performances by the central actors and the lack of any comprehensive character development, the number of viewers who choose to delve deeply into Syriana is likely to be very small indeed. Those who do will be rewarded with a labyrinthian tangle of contemporary political association and “low-down” which is liable to be outdated before the film can be rationally analyzed. In reaching so far and failing, Syriana deserves credit.
However, had the film-makers reached just a bit less far, then might have succeeded stupendously. If Traffic had any potential weaknesses, they resided in the areas of plot-confusion and sub-plot relevancy. Syriana chucks all fear of audience alienation in favor of a self0indulgent, if politically sensitive, approach which will leave all but the most seriously engaged rubbing their eyes with confusion and fatigue.