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Syriana

dir: Stephen Gaghan
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What do you look for in films? Is it diversion, or distraction; to forget for 90 to 120 minutes about the mundane obligations and constant petty outrages that modern life deals out to you on a daily basis? Is it to laugh, to cry, to get a tingle in your ‘naughty’ places from the on-screen antics of these surrogate selves cavorting on the silvery screen?

Is it to learn about the world, as seen through the eyes of the filmmakers, to be challenged and provoked, or to have your worldview confirmed and reinforced?

Regardless, whatever your reasons for darkening the cinema’s already darkened doorstep, I kind of doubt Syriana is going to provide any of that sweet, sweet satisfaction previously alluded to.

Syriana is one of those serious, serious films, like Traffic before it, which Gaghan also scripted, that believes it’s telling you something you don’t already know. It’s like the friend that points out stuff that’s already fairly self-evident to anyone in possession of at least four senses, saying stuff like “Gee, isn’t it hot today?” on a painfully scorching day. Or “Damn, having that limb amputated must have really sucked.”

The benefit of having one of these mundane oracles around is that if you missed something bleedingly obvious, they’re there to ensure you’re battered over the head with it until it sinks literally in through the skin and skull.

In like fashion, Syriana’s point is to tell us that large energy companies will occasionally engage in corrupt and unethical practices to achieve their goals, and that governments, especially US Government departments and the CIA, will often facilitate this, even to the point where they kill innocent people to smooth things along.

Colour me staggered! I never would have guessed such a thing could be possible. Of course, maybe I’d forgotten about the recent anniversary of the start of Gulf War Two: The Reckoning. I did drink a bit on St Patrick’s day recently, and it may have deleted some unimportant data.

The film doesn’t just make its points through the scope of telling a story: that is the story in its entirety. It uses multiple sub-plots to connect together to achieve an objective we know from the first frame. Poorly framed, unsatisfying subplots which cloud the issues more than they illuminate them. So many plots, so many silly characters, none of whom get a chance to be more than ciphers.

I don’t doubt that the preceding premise has some truth to it, I’m sure it’s happened a billion times, for billions of dollars at a time. But this is a feeble work of fiction with nothing to say apart from that.

It does link a lot of elements together: corporate corruption, governmental ‘evil’, the personal decisions people make that result in these outcomes, the seduction of terrorists, the ‘politicisation’ of the Intelligence services, the way people will sell out anyone for a modest price. But it doesn’t really have the real world resonance that people want us to believe it does, because of the way it’s packaged.

The film is based on a book by former CIA fixer Robert Baer, played in the film by George Clooney, called See No Evil. I don’t have any reason to disbelieve any of his points about how he got his hands dirty in the Middle East at their instigation, and that the CIA eventually screwed him over. But I don’t know that this flick really conveys with any sense of urgency that any of this actually happened, could happen or is happening. So it works at cross-purposes to its own objectives by dint of its annoying structure and dissatisfying resolution.

It’s fiction, and as fiction loosely based on the ‘real’ world, it is neither entertaining nor educational enough to justify itself. If it had been an artistic reinterpretation of world events, then it could have at least tried to entertain with a decent story. If it tried to be a legitimate representation of what ‘happened’, then they should have dropped half of the storylines and focussed on making it a convincing and compelling story.

With the interwoven plots, all you get is some characters on screen for a while who, by the time you start approaching being mildly interested in them, disappear for the next twenty minutes, replaced with other people not to care about. From an editing point of view it’s a mess, and probably deliberately so, but it renders the flick a sequence of incoherent vignettes that distance the viewer instead of bringing them in to the story.

An energy analyst (Matt Damon), after a tragic loss, becomes adviser to the prince of a fictional Middle Eastern country. The prince (Alexander Siddig), is progressive, and wants to improve the lot of his people and pull them out of the feudalistic past, but doesn’t want to be under the American yoke to achieve this.

A Pakistani oilfield worker (Mazhar Munir) is laid off after a merger of two companies, and falls prey to the pretty blue eyes of a terrorist recruiter.

A CIA agent (George Clooney) does the work he’s asked to carry out by his evil overlord masters, which includes assassinations, but still, he’s unfulfilled, and the agency treats him as expendable. Alienated and seen as a liability, someone gets to work him over worse than the backpackers in Hostel.

A corporate lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) with an insane father is hired to smooth over the merger of two massive oil companies. His flexible ethics allow him to help himself and aid the corrupt companies take over the oil fields of the World!

A lobbyist (Tim Blake Nelson) gives screaming speeches about the benefits of corruption.

These play on their plot lines for a few minutes, then shift to the next. Sure, it’s building towards something which is supposed to shock us and leave an indelible impression about the naughtiness people are capable of in the face of the world’s eventually dwindling fossil fuels. But come on.
Ultimately, what it comes down to for me is that none of this is shocking, none of it is news, and none of it is anywhere near as confronting, relevant or astounding as the complexities of the (actual) Second Gulf War. You’d think a film like this would have gained currency and relevance with recent events, but the truth is it makes the film look quaint, almost naïve.

Whilst almost everyone acquits themselves well enough, they’re just not around long enough to make an impact. I think Gaghan, who loves these interwoven, multi-character deals, was overly ambitious and should have cut out at least two of the plots. The lawyer plot especially had the riveting qualities of Special K, certainly more than able to bring down a horse and keep it in the K hole for a couple of hours, and should have been cut.

Also, the evil corporate boardroom and Capitol Hill stuff was so very, very weak. It’s all well and good to have a character arguing off the record about corruption being necessary for good business, but when all it does it recall the Greed is Good speech from Wall Street, but without the context, then it’s just filling up space.

It’s still better than the after-school special masquerading as a serious geopolitical drug war ‘thriller’ Traffic, which I hated. Hated with the kind of white hot fury that makes you want to punch out a kitten.

As an old fan of Deep Space Nine, it was great seeing Alexander Siddig as the progressive prince. He was really very good. It is good also to see my prediction from five years ago come to fruition, seeing as Siddig keeps getting work playing a noble Arab all the time now since September 11. Good luck to him. They love him because of that posh accent, I think, and his rangy looks. He was the best thing in the flick, but after all, for me there were slim pickings.

All in all, I don’t know what most other regular filmgoers would make of this flick. It’s something of an unholy abomination amalgam: not actiony enough to be entertaining, not intelligent or risky enough to be interesting. So in the last weeks of its cinematic run here in Australia, I’d say it’s one to actively avoid.

5 times they wouldn’t need to pull out my fingernails to get me to admit I wear girl panties out of 10

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“Dig six feet, find three bodies. But dig twelve feet, you find forty.” – my maths ain’t that good, but it’s better than that at least, Syriana.

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