Syriana Doesn’t Apologize for Being Smart

Syriana is a complicated film.

I really had to pay attention to what was going on, lest I get lost in the whirlwind of corporate takeovers, government intrigue and Islamic extremism. This is to the film’s credit–it’s a sophisticated, rather than convoluted, script by writer and director Stephen Gaghan.

The film is a multi-threaded treatise on the global oil and gas industry. It reaches from the boardrooms of Texas to back room dealings in Washington to camps for immigrant workers in the Middle East. I love the story-telling style, which shuttles between several equally-emphasized plot lines, much like Crash or Magnolia. The difference here is that, unlike those films, Syriana doesn’t struggle to connect the plots with twee coincidences. Characters from different storyline occasionally brush against one another, but the incidents seem natural and the plot rarely depends on the connection.

With the exception of the forgotten Amanda Peet, the cast is entirely male and excellent. George Clooney is an aging, pudgy, mediocre CIA agent. Matt Damon is clean-cut financial analyst who, after a personal tragedy, becomes swept up by the global politics of oil. Mazhar Munir is a lonely, disenfranchised Pakistani teenager who gets recruited by an extremist cleric. It’s difficult to separate the leads from supporting actors in Syriana, because the screen time is shared so equally among them.

Stephen Gaghan also wrote Traffic, which has a frenetic style. To me, this circumstantial style of film making is supremely modern, and seems to echo the messiness of the real world. There’s nothing wrong with traditional narrative structure. Our lives, however, rarely have three acts.

Though I felt occasionally befuddled by Syriana (and there’s one plot point I still haven’t figured out), I really enjoyed it. The film is smart and sophisticated, and makes no apologies for what it asks of the people in the cinema. That’s extraordinary in today’s Hollywood, and I hope we see more of it.

Here’s what the critics are saying. I was also interested to read what Natasha, a Jordanian, had to say about the film. There’s also the (kind of goofy) debate in the National Post on the movie as a vehicle for social change.

UPDATE: Rob’s got some interesting background on the film’s production company.

7 comments

  1. I too, thoroughly enjoyed this film…sophisticated political thrillers have long been the province of other countries, and I too hope we see an increase in intelligent filmmaking in anglo-North America. (Out of curiosity, which plot point has you stuck? If it’s spoiler-related, you can email me…I had a question or two as well.)

  2. I, too, wonder what stuck you. I thought I had the whole film figured out, but the plot flew by quickly enough that I suppose I might have missed an entire thread or a particular nuance.

  3. I really hope that Matt Damon gets some sort of Oscar recognition, as I thought his performance was the best in the whole film.

  4. Thanks for the review Darren. Looking forward to seeing that movie. Have you seen King Kong yet? I’d be interested to read your review on it.

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