Writer/director Stephen Gaghan is mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore. Syriana, Gaghan's latest film (he won an Oscar for penning 2000's Traffic), is a profoundly angry piece of progressive filmmaking that hearkens back to the social message flicks of the Seventies, when Molotov cocktail-hurling auteurs such as Sidney Lumet and John Schlesinger flung incendiary celluloid screeds at unsuspecting audiences.
Suggesting that our country's near-drunken dependence upon foreign oil has led to such pervasive corruption and greed (not to mention being mired in a war with no real justification and no end in sight) isn't what makes Syriana compelling, it's the stark clarity of Gaghan's righteous fury. Whereas Traffic detailed the ravages of drugs upon American culture and the near futility of waging a narcotics war, so too does Syriana attempt to explore the casualties and collateral damage of struggling to acquire black gold. Our need for gasoline outweighs our concerns about the global impact it has – consider this film a very timely (and yes, slightly biased) reminder.
Following a quartet of stories, Gaghan employs similar tactics as in Traffic: Everybody's connected, whether it's the burned-out CIA agent Bob Barnes (a bulked-up George Clooney, who won an Oscar for his work here) attempting to stay alive inside Beirut as his agency cuts him loose; ambitious energy consultant Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) cozying up to a future emir following a family tragedy; corporate lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) negotiating a massive oil company merger or disaffected Muslim youth Wasim (newcomer Mazhar Munir) flirting with the idea of becoming a suicide bomber. Gaghan deftly cuts between all four tales, having used retired CIA agent Bob Baer's "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism" as a jumping-off point.
The screenplay is appropriately dense and sprawling, trusting the viewer to pick up on key pieces of information; it's always refreshing to be allowed to connect the dots rather than bashed over the head with a completed puzzle. Credit also goes to Gaghan's impressive and focused cast: Clooney delivers a tightly wound performance of a man slowly coming apart while Wright and Damon are quietly effective; there's a sense that Gaghan trimmed back Munir's story, as it doesn't seem to get as much screen time as the other three, however it does conclude Syriana on a chilling note. Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Cooper and William Hurt also lend weight in their supporting roles.
A glib summation of Syriana would be "Traffic with oil" but that does both films a grave disservice – profoundly angry and profoundly saddened, Syriana has a sense of purpose and a sense of moral outrage that's barely contained. It's achingly relevant, ripped-from-the-headlines moviemaking that slips under your skin and stays with you. The DVD
Robert Elswit's jittery, verite cinematography looks absolutely smashing in this near-flawless 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer – deep, rich blacks, cold corporate boardrooms and blindingly bright desert vistas are all translated faithfully, with nary a defect to be found. Razor-sharp and vivid, Syriana looks fantastic. The Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is strangely muted – during an explosion in an opening sequence, I was surprised at the lack of presence; there's bass response, but it's far from what you'd expect in a recent film. I distinctly remember the impact that scene had in theaters so it's curious as to why it felt so much less punchy at home. Dialogue was also somewhat hushed and I had to crank the volume a little above normal for much of the movie. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 track is included as are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The Extras:
A film that cries out for supplements of substance, furthering the discussions sure to be started by Gaghan's film, Syriana is something of a let-down in this department; Gaghan didn't sit for a commentary track (nor did any of the principal actors), instead letting a nine minute, 10 second "Conversation with George Clooney" skim the surface of what makes the film so compelling. Also included are three deleted scenes (playable separately or together for an aggregate of five minutes, 37 seconds), the eco-aware 11 minute, 17 second "Make A Change, Make A Difference" featurette and the film's theatrical trailer. Hard to know whether Warner Bros. is planning a double-dip but surely this can't be all there is to say about such a complex, timely film? Final Thoughts:
A glib summation of Syriana would be "Traffic with oil" but that does both films a grave disservice – profoundly angry and profoundly saddened, Syriana has a sense of purpose and a sense of moral outrage that's barely contained. It's achingly relevant, ripped-from-the-headlines moviemaking that slips under your skin and stays with you. Despite a lack of substantive bonus material, it's a film that comes very highly recommended.
Portions of this review were reprinted from the Oklahoma Gazette.