Syriana has the misfortune to be the first Hollywood picture to deal directly with the current war in Iraq: our expectations over shoot almost any movie's possibilities. There was Fahrenheit 9/11, but that was a documentary, and, as such, the footage wasn't recreated--history wasn't re-staged as it is in Syriana. Jarhead, too, is an allegory set in the first Gulf War a little over a decade ago. For Syriana, these decisive differences mean that the film is the first step in cinematically digesting our current socio-political situation and, if the bald-headed guy sitting in front of me during my screening is in any way the measure for all men and his slightly shorter (but evermore attractive) girlfriend is the measure for all women, then a lot of us viewers have been a long time wanting such a film to explain this screwed up war.
George Clooney sets the stage as a CIA operative in the Middle East. Jeffrey Wright is the corrupt government gopher assigned to investigate a large oil merger with newly staked claims in Kazakhstan. Matt Damon is an American in Geneva doing televised economic reports--he hooks up with the Lebanese Emir's son and together they plot to democra-size the Middle East. The sub-stories are like a conspiracy theorist's chicken scratch, leaving no-one without some degree of complicity.
Syriana's strength is also its shortcoming: politically didactic, it puts all its eggs into one basket so when the politics don't deliver, there's nothing to fill in. Even Open City, Rossellini's film about Nazi-occupied Rome, has its roots in melodrama. As a result, Anna Magnani's character is fueled by both martyrdom and emotion: she's a bigger shitkicker than anyone in Syriana. Clooney and Wright, in particular, are unfittingly resigned in their roles: fatalistic martyrs--even an ounce of muckraking would have been a welcome relief.
But these are all the faults of Syriana; there are many successes, as well. Cinematographer Robert Elswit, especially, deserves to be singled out for avoiding the cliche, stereotyped landscapes of Traffic and Black Hawk Down. Here, the deserts are not marred by blurry heat-waves, and SUV's do not appear on the horizon in numbers of six or more. In Beirut, the slummy as well as the posh aren't racked into something ridiculous. Too, the music avoids the disasterous indulgence of using ethnic rock music to exoticize the decadence of the enemy--the clamor of dying weasels is on par with the xenophobic use of Arabic Rock in Black Hawk Down.
Cynically, I was more touched by Syriana's aethetic presentation of conspiracy than by any political analysis of our present day. Certainly allegories exist, but the overaching, less specific examinations of the conspiratorial process were its most spellbinding. It's both horrifying and fascinating to watch as these individual stories all careen together toward a common center. The result is cataclysmic. We are powerless, as are the characters and, in many ways, they come to seem more like an audience than participants in a story: theirs is fated, pre-determined by an ambiguous force that always exterts his omnipotence. In trying to lay-bare the mystery of oil, power and money, still more remains hidden.
Much to the dismay of the bald-headed and vertically challenged couple sitting in front of me, Syriana wasn't the middle-finger everyone hoped for. The young lady directly to my right, however--she arrived late so I can't describe her in any more detail--was in the thralls of political intrigue through and through. The torture scenes made her scream, the suspense kept her otherwise quiet. At its best, Syriana projects contemporary politics as an international mechanism of a seemingly uncontrollable fate. At its worst, it's a film with a clear thesis statement.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.