Thursday, December 15, 2005
Syriana: movie review
Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Based on the novel “See no Evil” by Robert Baer
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer, etc.
I really expected to love Syriana. I read, “See no Evil” by Bob Baer and I also read his other (and much more relevant to this film) book “Sleeping with the Devil.” Baer is a true American Spy. He is the real American James Bond only without the overblown action sequences.
Although he’s not an “action hero,” Baer is and has seen his fair share of hairy situations and unfortunately Clooney doesn’t capture any of it. Clooney plays Baer like a depressed and wounded CIA soldier, which is not what Baer portrays in his books at all. Yes, Baer felt betrayed by the CIA and had some serious tussles with the organization, but he was a proud soldier and did his job the best he could.
Now, Clooney didn’t butcher the role, but he didn’t impress either. He just put on some weight, grew a beard and played sad. Surprisingly, the rest of the cast outshines him by a mile. At one point, after Clooney had been missing from the screen for nearly 15 minutes I started to wonder who the movie was really about.
The argument is that Syriana is only for really smart, well-read, well-educated people who think they know what’s going on in the world. Well, yeah, they’re right, but that doesn’t mean that Syriana is some kind of secret code movie that only “smart” people will get.
Syriana makes itself “so smart” that it pretty much alienates a wider audience. It’s not a dumbing down of information that it needs, it’s a deeper explanation and understanding to certain aspects.
The gist is that a major oil company has bribed Kazakhstan to drill for exclusive drilling rights and corporate investigators try to dig up some dirt to stop a major merger between that company and another. This is very hard to follow and, much like Gaghan’s “Traffic,” may take multiple viewings to take it all in.
Baer’s “Sleeping with the Devil,” details much of the current state of oil in the Mideast and terrorism, which gives you a greater understanding of it that won’t be found in Syriana. I highly recommend reading this book over seeing the movie.
There are multiple storylines, one involving an oil broker (Matt Damon) becoming emotionally involved in a Saudi prince’s fight to become emir over his U.S.-friendly brother who is set to take the mantle.
Another storyline involves two Pakistani teenagers who are taken into one of the many fundamentalist camps in Saudi Arabia and brainwashed into suicide bombers. This is one of the most interesting aspects of Syriana (and is highlighted in “Sleeping with the Devil”), however there is a major problem I have with it. Although I understand that Gaghan tries to humanize these teenagers as “misunderstood” or “misguided” there is a point where I felt that I just didn’t care. Perhaps it’s just my personal feelings, but I don’t need to sympathize with suicide bombers anymore than I need to sympathize with Timothy McVeigh.
Misguided, misled, misunderstood, whatever the case may be, they’re still murderers. I appreciate that not every murderer is a bloodthirsty serial killer, but why should I accept the intentional slaughter of innocents as a tragedy on the part of the killers? I won’t.
And neither should you.
In the end, the wannabe emir is on a mad chase to stop his U.S.-friendly brother from becoming the true emir by enlisting the entire Saudi ruling cabinet in his favor. Along this journey we are shown how wonderful this emir is and without flaw. This is in an attempt to get us to feel for this guy who wants to change his country for the better and basically oust the U.S. by cutting off support.
The problem is, the guy is too clean. I’m sorry, call me a pessimist, but I think every politician, whether they are an emir or a president, has a certain level of corruption or wayward ways. It has always been so. Please, by all means, show me the career of an uncorrupted politician. We’ll tussle.
The U.S., sensing that the wannabe emir could possibly stop his U.S.-friendly brother from becoming emir, of course, decides to assassinate him. Clooney’s Baer races to their convoy to warn him of his imminent death and is killed by a strategic laser-guided bomb, killing all hope and diminishing Bear’s fight, sending the world deeper into corruption and death.
That’s the message of Syriana. Now, certainly there has been some crazy shit that has happened in the world of late. To say the least. But, I don’t know of any air strikes against would-be emirs in Saudi Arabia by the CIA (enlighten me if I’m wrong). And Bob Baer is alive and well, retired from the CIA and still living up his contacts. He didn’t die in an LGB attack.
What troubles me about this movie is that it takes so much truth from Baer’s work and turns it into something else. I wouldn’t call it completely left or even close to right. It’s somewhere out there, trying to get us to decide on something by tossing a bunch of convoluted information at us.
Syriana would be a much stronger film if it respected its audience a little more and instead of inundating them with over-the-top information, they could have used a little more storytelling and explanation. Satisfying performances don’t make up for a film that is completely inaccessible to the majority of viewers.
Some may argue that it’s too bad people are too stupid to understand the film. I understood the film, and certainly don’t consider myself stupid, and am also quite immersed in the politics of the world, but found my brain scrambling to understand what they were trying to get across. Was it a message about the content or just storytelling banter? The lines between truth, fiction, and plain understanding are lost in Syriana.
Movie Grade: C