Never send a writer to do a director’s job. That, more than the addictive evils of easy oil and cozy government/business corruption, is the true lesson of Syriana. When Steven Soderbergh took on Stephen Gaghan’s byzantine script for Traffic, he utilized a few simple tricks to keep it all making sense, everything from grouping stories by color scheme to casting vivid character actors for minor roles so that they wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. Gaghan doesn’t have these skills to bring to bear and though he beats his sprawling epic somewhat into shape, it leaves one wishing for the film that could have been, given a better director.
Like Traffic, Syriana is a messy Gordian knot of plot, only with no Soderbergh to slice it neatly open. Instead of drug trafficking, the subject this time is the nexus where oil corporations, the U.S. government, Islamic extremism, and Middle East dictatorships come together in an unholy fusion of polity and greed. The characters are introduced at a leisurely pace, Gaghan laying it all out with perhaps a little too much care. Once things start to cohere, the film shunts into a political thriller about an unnamed Gulf State where the ailing king’s two sons are jockeying for control; one is a lazy playboy beloved by U.S. interests and the other is an educated reformer who wants to modernize his country and stop kowtowing to the west.
Around this dense story, Gaghan layers a rich mix of characters that should excite more than they do. George Clooney – playing CIA operative Bob Barnes, loosely modeled on Robert Baer, an agency Middle East vet – seems to be trying to hide under the beard and extra poundage of a middle-aged disillusioned company man. Normally this would be a welcome tactic, but in a movie critically short of fireworks, his usual spark is missed. Similarly muffled is Jeffrey Wright in a tamped-down performance as a lawyer at a white-shoe DC firm looking into whether the Killen oil company (eager for government approval of a merger) paid off Kazakhstan officials for drilling rights.
Matt Damon and Chris Cooper – as an embittered energy analyst and Killen’s gung-ho owner, respectively – do their level best to work some energy into the film, but their efforts fizzle nevertheless, Gaghan’s lack of directorial rhythm hamstringing his own writing. Because of sloppy editing and critically mistimed delivery, a blistering Machiavellian speech by a congressman (Tim Blake Nelson) fingered in the Kazakhstan payoff about the necessity of corruption (‘Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm.’) which reeks of brilliant malevolence on the page is DOA on the screen.
Syriana has a rich smorgasbord of thought-provoking material to lay out before audiences, from the creepy ideologues at the (fictional, but just barely) Committee to Liberate Iran to the Pakistani migrant oil workers hostage to the whims of their host countries and the massive corporations propping them up. But, since this isn’t Frontline, choices that should have been made for artistry’s sake weren’t, and the result is a maze of barely-cohering subterfuge that has at least one subplot too many. Gaghan is rightly determined to show us the human cost of everything, thus most characters aren’t the two-dimensional action figures of your average thriller, but workaday types burdened with family and other woes. Instead of deepening the impact of the film, however, these asides simply weigh down the narrative. Though at least one major subplot has already been snipped out, there still remains at least one or two too many. The evidence of generous editing has left ragged edges in the film, producing a fitfully engrossing and overreaching film that is both somehow too much and yet not enough.
DVD extras include two small making-of featurettes and three Bob-oriented deleted scenes.
Where’s the poker game this week?