If Gaghan had developed character for its own sake and not relied so heavily on his belief that he knows what's really going on around the shrinking globe, Syriana could have been heady, maybe even devastating. Part of the problem is that he intercuts among his roughed-out episodes in a surprisingly tasteful manner. Syriana is incendiary only by implication; the experience of sitting through it is actually lulling. It's the suavest of the political movies getting attention this awards season, but by the same stroke the least plugged-in to the audience.
Gaghan piles one storyline on another but is only interested in suggesting where they trend, working like a (cynical) editorialist who has made up a few examples to support his views. As a result, the movie isn't convincing as journalism, exalting as tragedy, stirring as romance, or exciting as melodrama. This is the same problem that made Gaghan's script for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000) a non-starter. Both movies convey a couple hours' worth of gaudy, made-up bad news with bland objectivity; unfortunately for Syriana, Gaghan lacks Soderbergh's crisp talent as an editor.
The deadest spot of Syriana is the storyline involving the Pakistani boy working in the Arab oilfield who is laid off and becomes a terrorist. Gaghan treats his descent naturalistically, step by step, but so affectlessly that the movie gains nothing from having the episode acted out rather than merely cited as a statistic. It isn't just poetry that's missing, or moviemaking panache, but depth of conjecture. Hollywood movies about young Germans who became Nazis—The Mortal Storm (1940), Hitler's Children (1943), Tomorrow, the World! (1944), and later Swing Kids (1993)—are ludicrously overwrought, but Gaghan's birth-of-a-terrorist anecdote in Syriana doesn't make much of a case for the underwrought approach.
These anti-Nazi movies at least endow their deluded followers with moral agency: they choose to become saber-toothed sheep. For all the superficial naturalism, Gaghan treats the Pakistani boy anonymously, as one among millions prey to larger forces. He never gets inside what drives boys in that culture and of that class to make this decision. It's weird: Gaghan tries to get to us by showing the bad things that happen to individuals, but in his political scheme, as in his narrative approach, individuals don't matter. But his movie doesn't have enough force to convey an epic vision, either. Syriana is a very busy, and very confident, movie, and yet it feels fatally underimagined.
Steven Spielberg's Munich
How much you admire Steven Spielberg's Munich seems to be a function of whether you approach it as an action picture broadened to address a complex geopolitical situation, or as a complex geopolitical situation sized down to the dimensions of an action picture. If you approach it in the former way, then you may see it as "intelligent" and "sensitive." If you approach it in the latter way, you may not see it at all. The claim I don't think anyone can sustain on the movie's behalf is that the action-picture conventions, which Spielberg uses as a matter of course, in themselves bring out the nuances of the situation. Quite the contrary.