SYRIANA is not the movie about the talking Jesus lion, that’s CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. CHRONICLES OF NARNIA is not the one where Vin Diesel says “I haven’t smelled beautiful in a long time,” that’s CHRONICLES OF RIDICK.
Sorry, my man Richard Pryor died this week, so the jokes are awkward. But seriously folks. “Syriana” and “Narnia” sound similar enough, and there are alot of people who space out on movie titles. There’s got to be somewhere in this great country of ours where some knucklehead mixed up the names and went into the wrong movie and hilarity ensued. Picture a guy sitting waiting for what he thinks is a political ensemble drama. Thinking, wow, I’m surprised this many kids are interested in global politics. Or vice versa. Get all the popcorn, load all the kids in, wait through the ads and the previews and make the people around you uncomfortable. Shhh, Gunnar, time to be quiet. Skyler, you too. Do you need a time out? And then all the sudden a chubby George Clooney is in the middle east somewhere trying to set up a deal to sell a missile launcher.
Where I saw it they had it on multiple screens, playing every hour on the hour like it was SPIDER-MAN or something. So I actually did see a couple come in an hour late and try to make sense of it for 5 minutes before they figured out they were at the wrong showing. I feel bad about not telling them what was what but they were late for their own show anyway and I wanted to see if they could tell the difference between “hard to follow” and “we missed the first hour of this movie.” So it was an interesting experiment. The movie itself was interesting too, I guess.
SYRIANA is that rare political movie where the politics don’t seem simplified or spruced up for dramatic purposes. There’s a bunch of different storylines: George Clooney is a CIA agent on the outs because he keeps writing memos about a missing missile, Matt Damon is a guy working for an energy firm sent to meet with a middle eastern prince, then you’ve got a young Arab man laid off by an oil company who can’t find work and may or may not be destined to become a suicide bomber, it’s hard to really say, and you’ve got Jeffrey Wright as a lawyer investigating some, uh– I don’t know. Honestly I don’t remember exactly what was going on in this movie. But it was complicated, I remember. And it made sense at the time.
There’s alot going on, alot to follow and it all kind of connects in the end but not in a climactic Brian DePalma kind of way. But it does have a satisfying feeling when you realize that wait a minute, at some point when I wasn’t paying attention all the puzzle pieces seem to have come together. The characters themselves don’t know each other, don’t know what is going on in each other’s subplots, but some of them connect by the end.
The only movie that’s easy to compare it to is TRAFFIC. Stephen Gaghan wrote TRAFFIC (directed by Steve Soderbergh) and this is his rookie directorial job. He is apparently the type of guy who sits around for years researching this type of shit (the war on drugs, the oil industry) and figures out how to write complex ensemble dramas about it. Actually I shouldn’t say “sits around” because he went to Lebanon and shit and apparently at one point even got put in a car with a hood on his head and went to meet with a leader of Hezbollah (there’s a scene just like that in the movie, too. Good to see the research didn’t go to waste).
The story shows how many of the problems in our world are caused by our dependence on foreign oil. The best example is the prince here. The oil companies, and therefore the CIA, and therefore George Clooney (at first), want this guy taken out because if he takes over for his father, he plans to sell the oil to China instead of the US. This, he explains to Matt Damon, is for the best interests of his people because it’s a better deal, and he wants reform and revolution, he wants to invest the money in the people and the infrastructure instead of the way his father does, the way his brother would, in the fancy palaces and hotels with swimming pools that we see repeatedly throughout the movie. The idea is that we need to support reform minded Arab leaders but we’ll side with the bastards if it helps get us oil.
Although it’s a political movie it’s not an attack on republicans or Bush. Not that it would be wrong to attack those fuckers, they deserve nothing more than to be attacked and attacked and attacked by attackers and attacking related program activities. But the fact is this same shit was going on during 8 years of Clinton and in fact you see a portrait of Clinton in one guy’s office which made me think it even took place during the Clinton administration. Later there’s a reference to 9-11 though so that’s not the case. Anyway there’s no mention of any president or politician or party, that stuff seems irrelevant as long as politics are controlled by corporate money.
Clooney’s character is based on Bob Baer, the real life ex-CIA agent who wrote the memoir SEE NO EVIL which inspired the movie. I heard the real guy on the radio, he said he was not a consultant and was worried how the movie would turn out but as soon as he saw it he called them up and asked to do promotion for it because it was the only movie he’d ever seen that “got it right” about how the spy world works. This is a movie that’s not dumbed down at all. Or who knows, maybe it is dumbed down, but not below my level, so I couldn’t tell. Anyway, this movie is smarter than I am. It has an intelligence level of Vern or higher. So it takes effort to keep up.
And there are alot of damn characters. The truth is, this should be a mini-series. Because they’re all interesting characters but you don’t get enough of any of them. There’s a little personal life in there. In fact, some of the most powerful moments in the movie got nothing to do with the politics, they’re about the people. Like the tragedy that happens to Matt Damon’s family, and the relationship between Jeffrey Wright and his alcoholic father. The moment where he’s offered a drink and turns it down, and you realize why.
What’s most interesting about these lead characters is they are all trying to do the right thing, they all see flaws in some part of the system and try to fight it in their own way. But at the same time they’re all a part of the system. So they fail, or they get crushed, or shoved aside, or blown up, or they blow themselves up. They can’t stop it or they only perpetuate the problem. But it’s interesting because think about it, Matt Damon is a moneyman for an energy company. That should be a bad guy, you would think. But he’s portrayed with nothing but sympathy. He’s trying to get his company to help reform the middle east. He’s even a vegetarian.
Clooney’s storyline is the most interesting to me, the most cinematic, but he doesn’t seem to be in the movie enough. I ougtha read the book but if you read my JARHEAD review you know how that can turn out. His story has all the intrigue, it involves a couple of explosions, some torture, some threats and a bit of the old stifling bureaucracy/disobeying a direct order routine. The trailer was a good trick, they show you the few scenes that seem like a thriller and promise that this will tie into an explosive political expose and it gave me chills and pretty much looked like the greatest movie ever. But it’s not the greatest movie ever. I like the movie, I admire it, I maybe oughta watch it again. But I don’t love it. And I tend to LOVE a movie when it’s the greatest movie ever.
I was excited to see it but it took effort to stay excited while watching it. I’m not saying it’s a complete bore, because it’s not. But it does lean a little more towards eating your vegetables because you know they’re good for you, not as much toward great entertainment. It gets it all right politically but only partly right cinematically. There’s a scene where Matt Damon and Amanda Peet try to get their kids to eat vegetarian bacon, but the kids want “pig bacon.” That could be a metaphor for this movie. The movie is good for you and good for the world but maybe a little too dry and crunchy for breakfast. (On the other hand maybe the real bacon should stand for the “meat” and realism of this movie and the soy bean bacon should stand for artificial Hollywood movies, which are the ones that are too crunchy. Also, isn’t soy bacon kind of soggy sometimes and real bacon too crunchy if it’s overcooked? Ah shit, I don’t know, my metaphor has turned on me.)
Come to think of it, this brings up a troubling contradiction that seems to be a theme in Clooney’s work as an actor and producer now. He’s doing these political movies that work so hard to be unimpeachably fair and real that they abandon the tried and true techniques of Hollywood entertainment. So they “get it right” but they don’t exactly blow you through the back of the theater. Would it be better if it was an intense thriller that was looser with the facts? Where do you draw the line between refreshing and misguided? Intelligent and boring? I DON’T KNOW!
But I gotta be honest with you, the balance is not there. You got realism, you got smarts, but you got just under the required amount of compelling drama to pull me in all the way. It’s a more interesting subject to me than TRAFFIC, but somehow the story’s not as involving. And plus, TRAFFIC is not exactly my favorite Soderbergh movie. Some day somebody’s gotta figure out how to make a movie with more balance. Why can’t there be a movie as relevant as SYRIANA but as badass as THE LIMEY? You’re telling me Bob Baer is a pussy? Actually, take badass out of the equation. Soderbergh made TRAFFIC and ERIN BROCKOVICH in the same year. Both movies are good but not his best. I want to see something in between those two, between the phoney feel good crowdpleaser and the overly complex political drama. I am not a centrist though, I just think a movie can do both.
By the way, I got no clue what Syriana means. The middle east scenes just say they take place in “the Persian Gulf” so maybe Syriana is supposed to be a fictional all encompassing Middle Eastern country, but they chickened out and never said the name in the movie. Or maybe it means something else. Maybe it was the name of a character and I never picked up on that. Maybe it’s just a badass sounding name like DIE HARD, except not as badass. Like I said, I got no clue.
Conclusion: Stephen Gaghan is probaly a genius, but not a cinematic genius. This is a very smart, very pretty good movie. It probaly won’t knock your socks off but you may be willing to take your socks off yourself just on principle to reward a guy for trying to make a movie like this. Don’t give up Stephen, you got a good heart, you can do this some day.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.