Syriana Over-reaches
    Reviewed December 23, 2005

It’s that time of year when movie-going almost feels like it’s supposed to be good for you: bio-pics (Capote), sweeping epics (Memoirs of a Geisha), conscience-driven dramas (Munich) and political “message movies,” such as Syriana, are the norm at the height of awards season. Syriana wasn’t a film I was inherently drawn to, as I was to Brokeback Mountain, but I felt I needed to see it, both because it is a possible Oscar contender, and because it’s the kind of movie that is supposed to enlighten and educate. Summer is for fluff, winter is for depth, it seems.

Well, Syriana certainly doesn’t disappoint for those seeking a political, current-affairs drama with a wide scope and complex texture. Where the film does disappoint is in its delivery. I was reminded of an earlier political drama this year, The Constant Gardener, which was also a socio-political commentary film, but the difference is that film had a real story and palpable characters. I believe you must have a point of view in order to transmit any real message and Syriana has no point of view. It is a multi-thread, all-over-the-place menagerie of quick edits that jumps from place to place as fast as it introduces new characters. Just as you’re taking note of who’s who and who they work for and what their agenda is, we’ve moved onto a new scene, a new situation, with a fresh new set of agendas, issues and contradictions.

The only common denominator in this film is the subject of oil in the Mid-east. And while everyone seems to be concerned and involved in the issue, nobody ever steps up to actually make a point about it until halfway in, and it’s done by a pseudo-Saudi prince (it’s never actually established that his country is Saudi Arabia, but it’s implied) who is trying to enact real change in his country and reduce his dependence on the good ‘ol U.S. of A. And of course this promptly puts our good-hearted prince on the American hit list because without the mid-East oil connection, what would America do?

It’s easy to see that this film is directed by a writer, because it becomes way too bogged down in trying to show too many aspects of the issue that it doesn’t tell any one character’s story fully enough. The Constant Gardener worked as a political drama because it featured a personal story set against a giant political backdrop. Syriana is just one giant political backdrop—with no personal stories. The characters in the film are there merely to move the film’s agenda forward, not to generate any real emotional connection with the audience.

The marketing plan for this film seems to be centered on highlighting the similarities between this film and Traffic, its style and subject sibling. Traffic was a grand-scale multi-character issue-oriented epic directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Steven Gaghan. Syriana is instead produced by Soderbergh and directed by Gaghan, which is most likely where Syriana went wrong. Traffic was successful in presenting characters with stories, whereas Syriana is not. Traffic had a real flow to it, while Syriana never even gets off the page.

Give me the simplicity of Brokeback Mountain, with its glorious vistas, emotional weight and riveting performances any day over the message-wielding over-reaching, unemotional Syriana. This film proves that sometimes—truly—less is more.

My rating: ** = wait for video
Official Syriana website