From Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of 2000's Traffic, comes Syriana, an ambitious film that shrugs off standard categorization. It's a political thriller that unusually emphasizes the politics over the thrills, with a dense plot that requires an almost exhaustive amount of attention, not just to understand, but to know that you understand.
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Simply put, the film follows a handful of related stories that merge as the plot progresses. As drugs and U.S.-Mexican relations are to Traffic, the oil industry and the relations between the Middle East and the Western world are to Syriana. The multiple threads eventually converge, not into one single arc, but into a tighter overall story.
For better and worse, this is a different film than most, a fact that triggers a debate between the two sides of my movie brain, the side that wants intelligent and well-spoken cinema (Ivan) and the side that wants to be entertained (Edgar). Here's a peek at their conversation as they sit on my shoulders...
Ivan the Intelligent: What a breath of fresh air! A film that doesn't lessen itself to appeal to the masses.
Edgar the Entertained: If by that you mean it doesn't give the audience any reason to care at all, then I fully agree. At no point was I really into the movie, except when I was trying to comprehend what the heck was happening.
Ivan: What, you can't handle actually needing to listen to the words? A intentionally deliberate movie that you actually have to watch because it doesn't cut every two seconds bores you? Just because it doesn't have an endless visual stream of fights and explosions doesn't make it a bad movie.
Edgar: No, the fact that the entertainment value is almost zero does that. It's about as engrossing as watching a news channel. I'm paying $8-10 to be at least partially entertained, not to learn about one view of global politics.
Ivan: I'm just glad that Gaghan and company actually take advantage of the medium. More people not named Moore should use film to explore social issues, and the filmmakers did so here largely without the use of a soapbox. That's a very commendable feat, thanks to a complex script and characters that are more than stock political figures.
Edgar: I concede that the script is well written and the story is well crafted. But I object to labeling the characters as unique or interesting. Some of them are multi-dimensional, but ultimately THEY'RE ALL THE SAME! Every single one is selfishly looking out for his or her own interests. There are few redemptive qualities to latch onto. And other than the plot line involving Matt Damon and his family, nothing appealed to the emotions, despite the solid acting chops displayed by the loaded cast.
Ivan: Get over the emotional kick. Movies can have different ways of appealing. Syriana aimed for the mind, not the heart, and hit that target squarely as it explored the tricky oil issue that dominates global politics.
Edgar: If I conceded your point, and I don't, attempts at more cerebral cinema can still have a soul. Look at the Gaghan-penned Traffic, which featured drama both emotional and intelligent. That film made several good points about the world of illegal drugs, and featured well-rounded characters that allowed for emotional connections. Syriana tried that tack a couple times; but the efforts were forced, mostly ineffective, and lacked a sense of urgency. Those short-comings deprived it of the soul-striking power of Traffic.
As one can probably deduce from this head-swiveling argument, the entertainment side won the race to the finish line. Syriana is appreciated more than enjoyed, better in retrospect than while viewing. That it was made is as big an accomplishment than the film itself. If you want a Tim Wakefield knuckleball in a cinematic world of Randy Johnson fastballs, you could do worse than Syriana. But unless you (like me) want to check all the Oscar contenders off your list, you need not rush out to see this movie in theaters, because a smaller screen won't diminish its moderate impact. 5 of 10.
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