Sunday, July 09, 2006


SyrianaSyriana should probably carry a sanity warning at the beginning of the film to the effect that if you let your attention drift for more than 30 seconds you're going to very quickly get confused and wonder what's going on in this movie.

This is probably one of the most hotly debated, if not exactly the most widely seen at the box office, films of the year, with audiences who HAVE seen it seemingly stuck between two extremes - those who found it an 'incomprehensible, tedious mess' and those who thought it the most 'intelligent, provoking and beautifully put together' film of the year. American critics Ebert and Roeper have both put the film in their Top 2 of movies of 2005, while others think it's the death of coherent and well-plotted film-making - it's a film that brings out extremes of view. So let me say, straight off the bat, that this will undoubtedly be in my Top 5 films of the year when I look back in December 2006!

Syriana tells a complex story about a complex situation - the oil business and the repercussions its importance has on all our lives. Essentially it's a movie about America's addiction to cheap oil, and how that has shaped the world we all live in. Told through several different strands that touch on each other, the basic assassination plot - set against a background of American involvement in foreign politics motivated by its desire to protect its oil interests - is not totally dissimilar to real events that occurred in Iran some years ago. What I loved about the film was the way the separate stories all helped explain the basic message without dumbing down for the audience. For example, on the surface, a scene with Clooney talking to his sullen son about his entrance to college seems rather out of place to the plot and entirely random, until one realises it's placed slap bang next to a scene of another father and son (the son later to become a suicide bomber) in the Middle East. What is conveyed here, albeit very subtly, is that although the surroundings and the culture of the two motherless families depicted may be very different, the people, the family situations, and the needs of such are virtually identical. The message I took away, admittedly influenced by my own experiences of working for nearly five years in the Middle-East, is that we have more in common that a simple initial analysis might indicate.

So far as the acting goes, there isn't a poor performance in the film. Leads George Clooneyand Matt Damon, ironically enough, are perhaps the weakest parts in the film, but only because they are well known and recognisable to us. Clooney put on a lot of weight and shaved back his hairline for the film, and it makes his role the more believable, but it's still very clear it's him. I think Alexander Siddiq, a seriously under-rated actor, deserves special mention for his portrayal as one of two Persian prince brothers, but really it's hard to single anybody out when the peformances from all the cast are as good as they are here. Director/writer Stephen Gaghan's filmic style might not be to everyone's taste, his hand-held camerawork giving a very clear 'documentary on the hoof' feel at times, but I thought it delivered on all required fronts, always cutting scenes short to leave the viewer to think thinks out for himself, instead of spelling everything out in tedious detail.

Extra's wise there's not much here. Three deleted scenes, filling in some of Clooney's character's back story, actually add nothing to the explanation of the story and one can understand the reason for their omission, with the film already running in at just over two hours. There's a 5-10 minute interview with Clooney, in his role as Executive Producer, which oddly seems to include clips of scenes that never made it into the film or the final cut (or the deleted scenes), and a fluff piece of about the same duration that consists of the main actors and producers acting as talking heads to promote the film. And aside from a trailer that's it! A film this long and this complex is crying out for a director's commentary, but alas, it looks like we might have to wait for the inevitable anniversary special edition to get that.

Over on imdb the biggest criticism, from those who managed to stay with the movie to the end rather than walking out in disgust 60 minutes or so in, seems to be the lack of a proper ending. I don't buy that criticism. The final montage, showing how various families across the globe have been impacted by the events we've been shown in the film, makes it cynically clear that there are no black and white's where trying to solve the Midle-East problem is concerned. The very last montage shot of the film shows one of the central characters, a lawyer with an alcoholic father who he has earlier turfed out of his home, accepting him back in and picking up the beer he had previously told him he wouldn't allow inside the house, from the front porch. The message, I think, is clear, and the alcoholic metaphor is straightforward - no matter how good the intents of the sons of those who perhaps helped create the world's biggest problem there is no solution in sight. At least not until we can cure ourselves and our loved ones of this addiction to cheap oil.

This is a powerful and thought-provoking film that really needs to be seen on DVD to pick up on the nuances that one might miss on a single viewing. I highly recommend it.


admin said...

it confused me the whole time i watched it. Do you have to have some background knowleadge of oil business to be able to understand this film?
I find that the movie can be watched backward and it wouldn't be any different.

Ian said...

I think that 'watch it backward' comment is a bit harsh, but it's certainly a movie that people are very divided on. I must say I was dreading the film given how many reviewers talked about it being difficult to follow, but I really don't see why so many people find it confusing.

Allen Louise said...

Apparently, Clooney and Soderberg wouldn't let Gaghan have final cut and he claimed they ruined the movie. That might explain why people had trouble with it.