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Movie Review: Syriana

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Written by Carlito de Corea

A strong ending makes up for what felt like a tedious and confusing film much of the time, revealing a greater degree of coherence than was initially apparent. The build up toward that end, however, is complicated and at times seems so esoteric that we are left feeling almost inadequate, unable to get emotionally or even intellectually involved. Still, I recommend Syriana, with the reservation that the labor involved in trying to keep up with the multiple, often obscured, storylines might be too taxing for many viewers.

If the word “Syriana” bears any lexical relation to the term “Americana,” then it means “About the Middle East,” or “Things characteristic of the Middle East.” Syriana is told in a fleeting, almost stream of consciousness style, and begins by placing us in the center of scenes for which no context has been established, cutting from one set of characters to another, each occupying different, as-yet-undiscernable storylines. The film is written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who also wrote the screenplay for Traffic.

There are essentially five storylines, depending on how you divide them, which are all eventually brought together in the end: the story of Bob Barnes, the CIA assassin, played by George Clooney, who is being retired by the agency; the story of Washington lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), and the merger between the Connex and Killen oil companies; the story of the emir and his two sons, Prince Nasir and Prince Meshal, both potential heirs to his kingdom and its oil fields; then there is the story of Bryan Woodman, the financial consultant, played by Matt Damon, who becomes a confidant to Prince Nasir; and finally, there is the story of Wassim and his friend, Farooq, the disenfranchised foreign workers who are ultimately influenced by radical Muslims.

The film jumps back and forth between these main storylines, presenting small parts of each narrative in succession, sometimes even taking the time to focus on a minor aspect of a larger storyline, like Bob Barnes’ problems with his son, or Bryan Woodman’s struggle to keep his family together. The film also jumps to the many geographic locations that each of the main stories brings us to.

To help explain the film a little, if that’s possible in a short review, it might be easier for anyone planning on seeing this film to consider the story of the emir and his two sons as the central hub through which the other stories flow, or ultimately converge. This narrative is never developed, but is rather implied, acting more as a conduit for the other storylines in the film, although much of the film and its various narratives are also implied. In any event, all roads lead to the Middle East (coming from Texas and Washington).

Bryan Woodman, the consultant based out of Geneva, is working together with Prince Nasir, portrayed as the better, more conscientious prince, to reform his country and reduce the bleeding of their profits to foreign interests. Meanwhile, Connex and Killen are courting the other prince, Prince Meshal, whom it appears they can control, and who it appears will be heir to his father’s kingdom. They are also trying to get him to break an existing contract the emir has with the Chinese government. Basically, I would advise looking at the film this way: Bennett Holiday, and everyone associated with his firm, and with Connex and Killen, bad; Bryan Woodman, and the forward thinking son, good. Then there is Bob Barnes, who is caught in the middle, and paradoxically, as an assassin, is our moral barometer in the film.

There are also the foreign, or migrant, workers who have been fired from their jobs at the oil fields due to a takeover by the Chinese (replacing Connex), and who are generally mistreated at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak. Their story only relates to the other storylines tangentially in the end, but not inappropriately so. In fact, symbolically speaking, it is precisely appropriate that their story is less integral, as they are part of the disenfranchised masses, irrelevant cogs in the capitalist machinery. In so being, they are also vulnerable to radical ideological influences, and as Syriana shows, are the X-factor, the joker in the deck we cannot predict.

The effect of Syriana might be described as a mosaic of simultaneous imagery, where the five or more stories are almost, in essence, coming at us at the same time. By seeing a short part of each narrative in succession, the viewer begins to feel present in all the various places and storylines at once. The effect is a kind of ubiquity, as I might feel in a dream, suddenly finding myself in various locations within a short space of time, but where things also don’t exactly make sense. The film also employs a sense of realism, however, but a subjective realism. Oblique camera angles and hand-held shots contribute to this feeling. There often seemed to be the sense that we were viewing the central action through a corridor of visual obstructions, people left out of focus, or a simple column or cupboard crowding the edge of the frame, so that we are always looking past or along something. This gave the film an insular quality, the feeling of watching in secrecy, or perhaps experiencing the tunnel vision of a dream. This feeling is further enhanced by the use of natural sound, combined with an ambient background music that reminded me of the music of Tangerine Dream.

While the film is achieving this ambient, beneath-my-conscious-level feeling, however, it also left me with a sense of being lost, or disconnected. Information comes fast and fleetingly, often in the form of some apparently off-handed remark, or some mumbled phrase from one character to another, under their breath, but which also happens to be a key element of the plot. Important information goes by so quickly that it’s hard to keep up, and then we’re off to another location, to another set of characters.

Of course, Gaghan is trying to bring us into the film from the inside, so that he can eventually pull back to give us a wider view, perhaps to achieve some of the effects discussed above, or perhaps to increase the impact of the ending, rather than taking the usual outside-in approach. Syriana drops us smack in the center of things, for better or worse, leaving us to fend for ourselves, so to speak. But this up-from-the-inside approach, combined with the abundance of storylines and the obscure manner in which exposition is presented, makes the film hard to follow, and for much of the time I really had no idea what was going on, leaving me detached, and even bored at times. I just sat back feeling left out, like I didn’t have enough political knowledge to participate in the film.

As far as the acting is concerned, the only distraction, I felt, was Matt Damon. I really didn’t think he carried his weight in this picture. He seemed to pale beside his Middle Eastern counterpart, Alexander Siddig, at crucial moments, as when he is scolding the prince for having no business sense. Rather than impressing us as the frustrated but impassioned observer revealing the truth in brutal terms to his new client, the character comes across as melodramatic and petulant. His delivery of these key lines seemed out of place, reminiscent of the diatribes we saw in Good Will Hunting. At times, however, he wasn’t bad, and frankly, Gaghan should have exercised better judgment, or at least control, over his actor. He simply shouldn’t have settled for the scenes as they were.

George Clooney. George is an actor I don’t want to have any problems with. I like George. I’m always rooting for him, wishing he would be still, believe in his presence, which he does have, and much of that comes out beautifully in this film. At times, though, I felt I was seeing some of the usual George Clooney quirks coming through the performance, like his trademark head bobbing. But much of the time, if not most of the time, Clooney was right on the money in this picture as the depressed CIA assassin being set out to pasture. But this was when he wasn’t trying so hard, relying on his presence and letting the character just be. The rest of the cast was strong. Jeffrey Wright was especially impressive in his understated portrayal of Bennett Holiday.

Storylines do begin to converge about halfway through the film, or later, and we finally begin to get the sense that the seemingly unrelated pieces of this complex mosaic are starting to make a larger picture, even if we don’t exactly understand what it is. Bob Barnes’ first return to Beirut marks a definite turning point in the film. Things pick up from there. At this point we begin to feel that Syriana is going somewhere, that the stakes are mounting and some significant resolution might take place.

Despite its complicated construction, I recommend Syriana. It is one of those movies whose ending has the retroactive effect of suddenly making the whole picture seem better, and making us realize that there was more to it than we may have initially realized, that beneath the confusion there was substance after all. For people who liked Traffic, you may already be inclined to enjoy Syriana, as both films were written by Stephen Gaghan, and bear much of the same structural approach to telling their story, with Syriana revealing government (American) corruption in the Middle East and Traffic showing the same thing in South America. As well, the film is visually satisfying, as I have described. There is a real sense of going on a journey, through a few dark tunnels, so to speak, and I enjoyed the “subconscious” feel of it.

In the end, I believe I felt what director Stephen Gaghan wanted me to feel: stunned, and perhaps a little bit more aware, if I wasn’t already fairly suspicious, of just how deep the connections run in Washington between the oil companies and espionage, between business and terrorism. I look forward to a second viewing of Syriana.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • http://indemnification.blogspot.com -E

    Interesting review. I think you liked the movie much better than I. I found it had a ton of potential but never came close to fulfulling it. I found it boring and lacking and the only interesting part was the convoy of vehicles in the end. Did that make it all of a sudden better? Nope. I honestly wanted my money back. Nor do I think it should have been given any nods for any awards.

  • Steve

    I thought this movie was overrated but not bad, certainly the location filming was a nice change from the usual ‘studio/special effects shooting’ kind of movie.

    The scene where Damon’s character explains to the Saudi Prince that by spending money on themselves instead of infrastructure, that their people will be impoverished once again when the oil runs out, was the most memorable for me.

  • http://breathoffreshink.com Chris Evans

    I personally thought the movie was not very good (I hate it when filmmakers confuse complicated and confusing with intelligent) but did think the acting was pretty good. But that’s to be expected with people like Clooney, Wright, and Damon.

  • Bliffle

    I quickly decided that it was not my job to piece all the plot threads together, and then I just sat back and allowed the movie to tell it’s story. Then I enjoyed it. But it fell short of much of it’s promise.

  • John G

    I was very very disappointed. At the end of the day a movie has to entertain. Take music. The vast majority of people would enjoy hearing music played by an orchestra; very few would get the same pleasure reading the printed notes from a music sheet. This film was like reading the music, not listening to it. I felt I should have read the script instead. I would not recommend this movie to anyone (apart from hardened film critics and those who pretend to be intelligent) For the first time I would like my money back.

  • freak

    the movie is good. i liked it a lot in 2005, bt never thought that its “drones” are what us forces are now in 2009 using to assasinate terrorist leaders in afghan-pak and the influnce of radical islam on pakistani immigrants in u.a.e