Sinking Feeling

Issue section: 

Review of 'Syriana', director: Stephen Gaghan

What follows is not so much a review - it is more an anxiety attack in print. A review should tell you something about the movie, but I can't since I did not really understand much of Syriana. A review should offer firm opinions about the film - but again I can't. It's not that I don't have an opinion, it's that I have too many and they don't quite fit together. A review should close by advising you whether or not the movie is worth seeing - but I can't. My answer is a firm yes, and an equally firm no. So call this a non-review. Colour me confused.

Yet the trailer for Syriana makes it look like a near-perfect movie for SR readers. It confronts the most key political controversy of our time - the politics of oil. What is more, Syriana takes for granted that Big Oil is, in the words of one of the film's characters, "legitimised gangsterism on a global basis". The suits in Hollywood have seen that there is a market for movies that despise Bush and all he stands for.

What is also refreshing about Syriana is that it shows due respect to the intelligence of its audience. It's the kind of film where characters speak about "Mossadeq" or "Mossad" and simply assume you will understand. Those of you who have seen Traffic, the dope opera written by Steve Gaghan (who this time also directs his own script), will know what to expect. Gaghan tells multiple (and tangled) stories across time and place. Syriana demands that you pay close attention.

And the film repays that attention with some quite brilliant moments. Matt Damon's young but ambitious oil executive is invited to a shindig at the mansion of an oil sheikh, where his young son is accidentally killed. As a blood payment the sheikh awards Damon a $100 million contract. Damon responds by saying, "How much for my other son?" I've seen very few films that have captured the moral depravity of capitalism with such force.

So Syriana is a gutsy attempt to make an intelligent film about one of the political evils of our time, and I admire that a great deal. If only I'd liked it more.

The first problem is that the story lines are actually confusing - indeed, often bewildering. And I have to admit that I nodded off during some of the really boring bits. In Paul Haggis's brilliant movie Crash, the disparate characters and storylines are held together by place, time and theme. Here they coexist rather than cohering.

But the central bind with the new strain of "political" films like Syriana and The Constant Gardner is that they assume that just by venturing into the world of commerce and corruption they become political. In fact, a "political" film has to be judged in large part by how incisive its politics are. Like The Constant Gardener, this film fails that test with flying colours.

I find it very significant that, in a movie that pompously flaunts its "research" the very word "Iraq" never features in the script. With Kenny Boy Lay and his Enron hoppos facing a 43-year stretch in the pen, even Bush has had to distance himself from Big Oil. Frankly, taking 126 minutes to tell a stunned world that the oil industry is vicious and corrupt does not shed much light on the politics of the Middle East. We already knew this. Insider rumour has it that Gaghan's next two-hour epic will reveal that shit smells. Shouting "Yah-boo!" at "legitimised gangsterism" really does not move the world on that much, does it? Worse still, in the absence of any action "hero", George Clooney's sad-sack CIA assassin becomes the surrogate hero by default, and that is just sick.

The compensation in The Constant Gardener was the sheer visual brilliance of Fernando Meirelles' direction, but there's no such luck in Syriana. As a filmmaker, Steve Gaghan makes a great scriptwriter. And, in my opinion, as a screenwriter he'd make a great novelist.

So what you are left with is a movie that wants to be important, but is in the end just self-important. A movie that wants to be hard hitting, but which delivers no more than prods and slaps. A movie that strives hard to be intelligent, but is really just smart-arsed. A movie I wanted so much to like, but just didn't.