Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Chris Cooper, Jeffrey Wright
Director: Steven Gaghan
ALSO! Check out where it ranked in our 2005 Year in Review.
Over the past year, a profusion of controversial, politically-charged films have surged their way into theaters with one message in mind; namely, that Hollywood isn’t afraid to exploit the page-one, hot topic news stories of the Middle East and the war on terrorism, and that maybe, a majority of the American population actually wants to hear about it. Recently, both “Jarhead” and “Lord of War” succeeded as black comedies on the subject, focusing on the farcical involvement of the U.S. government much more than the varying degrees of seriousness these issues might present. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan, however, isn’t joking around, but despite an excellent ensemble cast, “Syriana” fails in just about every way possible, most likely because it takes nearly an hour before the audience can recognize the film’s many characters and plotlines.
At the forefront of the story is Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a veteran CIA agent who’s been sent to Beirut on a clandestine mission to assassinate political reformist Prince Nasir Al-Subaii (Alexander Siddig). As the assumed heir to the throne of an unnamed Middle Eastern country, Nasir has recently approved a new drilling contract with a Chinese oil company in favor of the U.S.-owned Connex, thus threatening the pending merger between Connex and Killen, another Texas-based oil company run by executive good-‘ol-boy Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper). Assigned to speed up the approval process of the merger is corporate lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), but an investigation into the companies’ business practices uncovers a trail of fraud and corruption.
Also involved in the complex story is an energy analyst-turned economic advisor to Nasir (Matt Damon) and a Pakistani migrant worker (Mazhar Munir) who is swayed into the world of terrorism after losing his job at the oil fields, but if you blinked at the right moments throughout the film, there’s a good chance you’d miss them both. And frankly, you could treat every character from “Syriana” in the same manner, since it’s nearly impossible to connect to any of them emotionally when they’re absent from the story the majority of the time. This is a real shame, considering the strong performances that result in giving good actors great roles, specifically Clooney (who gained 40 lbs. and grew a beard) and Wright, with which the film’s finest scenes take place.
This isn’t to say that “Syriana” isn’t a historically significant film, or that it won’t enjoy its share of praise come award time, but it’s just not the same movie that everyone was expecting. The filmmaker’s decision not to include a concrete ending was a wise one, since the international war for oil is far from over, but the omission of any real story was a horrible mistake. The five separate narratives struggle throughout the strenuous two-hour runtime to amass a single idea, when they would have accomplished so much more on their own. The result is an exercise in patience on the viewer’s part. In fact, try sitting through “Syriana” without counting the number of times you’ve shifted in your seat out of boredom, and you might just be one of few people that actually enjoyed this political parade of nonsense. For the record, the high score for seat shifting is 39, and it’s mine.
Following in the Warner Bros. tradition to release sloppy DVD releases, “Syriana” isn’t exactly special feature-friendly. Along with three deleted scenes, the single-disc effort also features a brief sitdown with co-star/producer George Clooney (“A Conversation with George Clooney”) and a cast/crew-led public announcement that stresses awareness of the current oil crisis (“Make a Change, Make a Difference”). Whoopee.