Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Syriana - Movie Review

Syriana 2005

Oh, how we wanted to love this latest foray into the political by our pal George Clooney. Honest, we did. And to some extent, casting and cinematography-wise, it worked beautifully. We have always been suckers for political pseudo thrillers. Who doesn’t love ‘em? From “The Manchurian Candidate” (The original great one, you twits, not the recent one.) to “All the President’s Men” to “The Insider.” The more labyrinthine and complicated, the better in our humble opinion. We simply adore getting wrapped up in espionage, betrayal and assassination plots. So what went wrong? Well, we sadly have to report that the blame must be placed on the writer / director Stephen Gaghan. In his sophomore directorial effort, Mr. Gaghan bites off more than he can chew. While we admired his work as a screenwriter, namely his Oscar winning script to Steven Soderbergh’sTraffic”, adapted from the original British television series – “Traffik”, his first adventure into the director’s chair should best be forgotten. Mr. Gaghan is obviously capable of weaving together a collection of subplots that support a larger idea, but in this case he lost his way on the road to Syriana. (Which sounds like an old Hope & Crosby flick, but sadly is not. This flick could have used ole Dorothy Lamour in a sarong.)

Now, we don’t want to give the impression we hated “Syriana”, since that is not the case. We enjoyed many things about it. Namely the casting of George Clooney and his fuck buddy, Matt Damon!! Whew!!

We would however be remiss in our duties if we failed to mention that this is the infamous acting role in which our pal George, fueled either by some latent Method Acting impetus or sheer gluttony gained over thirty pounds to portray! George, honey. Was that necessary? You’ll ruin your health. Oops. Too late. Anyway, we couldn’t help but wonder why our ole friend would place his health on the line, but we admit it did add a certain “lived-in” look to his performance that eventually paid off during his harrowing confrontation scene with certain particular baddies. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What the hell is “Syriana” about? For that matter, what the hell does “Syriana” mean? And why so many subplots?

Syriana” weaves a political tapestry of the under the table dealings between oil conglomerates and the Middle Eastern nations that are sitting upon the dinosaur bones that propel all those lovely SUVs throughout the hinterlands of the ole U.S. of A. From the corporate boardrooms of the suited baddies, to the desolate desert landscapes of the bedsheet draped baddies we get to drop in on all the shady dealings that help bring about coup d’etats and promote anti-American sentiments the world over. Skreeeeech!!!! Whaddya mean they hate us over there? We can’t imagine why. It’s not like the United States helps to topple governments in the name of greed or anything. Goodness knows, that the greatest country on earth has never been one to hurt innocents in the name of baseless fears or imperialism.

Now, you see what this film has done? It’s gone and got us all hot and bothered. We hate when that happens. Unless it involves George Clooney and Matt Damon. Then, we’re in. Sans weight gain. Although, our pal George is quite good in this performance. Other notable turns include the underappreciated Jeffrey Wright as the hardworking young lawyer who stumbles across the dirty underbelly of the oil conglomerate beast, the always reliable Christopher Plummer who is a treat to behold as long as he isn’t warbling to Nazi youth, Broadway veteran Jayne Atkinson as the steely eyed CIA Director, William Hurt fresh from his brilliant turn in “A History of Violence” – seen here as a “Deep Throat” wannabe, and as for the towelheads, Alexander Siddig gratefully stepping out from his “Star Trek” limbo long enough to pull of a polished performance as the heir apparent to a dynastic Oil-rich nation and Mazhar Munir as the doe-eyed Pakistani youth who succumbs to fundamentalist teachings in order to avenge his people’s plight at the hands of the evil Oily bigwigs. On the downside, despite our unabashed love affair with Matt Damon, he is woefully misused here. His storyline as the energy analyst embroiled in domestic tragedy alongside wife Amanda Peet, fails to connect emotionally or dramatically. He fairs slightly better than Amanda, who ever since delivering a kick ass monologue in the unjustly ignored “Changing Lanes” has failed to live up to our expectations.

Back to the flick in question. We will be the first to say that films can be the perfect medium for multi-character, interwoven storytelling: from “Intolerance” to “Dinner at Eight” to “Rules of the Game to works by more recent giants, Robert Altman and Pedro Almodóvar. It can be a grand canvas to play on. Or not. While we had originally admired Mr. Gaghan’s storytelling capabilities, we realize we should have been praising the Steven with a V. Soderbergh. Whatever contributions Gaghan brought to “Traffic”, it was Soderbergh who brought clarification, visual thrulines, dramatic tension, and plain ole talent to the proceedings to help make that flick work. “Syriana” ultimately doesn’t work for two reasons. One, the stories that contribute to the overall conceit are too often placed on the back burner for side stories that do little but slow down the proceedings. Will somebody please tell us why we should care about Jeffrey Wright’s alcoholic downtrodden father, since their relationship remains a stagnant one? Or for that matter, why bother to introduce George Clooney’s son, when all he can contribute is guilt over his father being a covert CIA agent. Well, duh? Nobody ever said that international espionage is a stable job environment for good parenting skills you whiny stump.

Two, Gaghan is simply not up to the task of directing. Sorry. There it is. We thank you for your hard work, and your best intentions, but please put down the megaphone and step away from the director’s chair. Your services are no longer required. Jeez. Now we sound all crotchety and angry. We hate to give that impression. In the era of dumbed down filmmaking, we appreciate any flick that attempts to address important issues in an intelligent fashion. We simply ask that they hire a talented pro, and not a screenwriter turned junior auteur that hasn’t the skills to pull it off. So, in closing while we loved many of the performances, we simply cannot encourage our legion of fans to drop some hard earned money on “Syriana.” Bless you all.

Closing note: So about that title? Here is what Stephen Gaghan had to say - "While 'Syriana' is a very real term used by Washington think tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East, in the movie, it is used more abstractly. 'Syriana', the concept, the fallacious dream that you can successfully remake nation-states in your own image, is a mirage. 'Syriana' is a fitting title for a film that could exist at any time and be about any set of circumstances that deal with man's unchecked ambition, hubris, and the fantasy of empire." Okay. Aren't you glad you asked?

Written & Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Suggested by the book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism by Robert Baer

George Clooney as Bob Barnes
Matt Damon as Bryan Woodman
Amanda Peet as Julie Woodman
Mazhar Munir as Wasim Ahmed Khan
Christopher Plummer as Dean Whiting
Jeffrey Wright as Bennett Holiday
Nicky Henson as Sydney Hewitt
Alexander Siddig as Prince Nasir Al-Subaai
Akbar Kurtha as Prince Meshal Al-Subaai
Chris Cooper as Jimmy Pope
Tom McCarthy as Fred Franks
Jayne Atkinson as CIA Division Chief
Tim Blake Nelson as Danny Dalton
William Hurt as Stan Goff
Max Minghella as Robby Barnes
Robert Foxworth as Tommy Thompson

Cinematography by Robert Elswit
Film Editing by Tim Squyres
Costume Design by Louise Frogley
Original Music by Alexandre Desplat
Production Design by Dan Weil
Art Direction by Daran Fulham
Alan Hook
Andrew Menzies
Laurent Ott
Set Decoration by Olivia Block-Lainé
Jan Pascale


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