NB: This is a dense and complex film, one that deserves many more thousands of words than I am able to devote to it, here. There are many studied and detailed reviews of the film out there, so feel free to check them out. You might want to start here: My personal favorite is A.O. Scott‘s review in the New York Times.
Last week I got the chance to see Stephen Gaghan‘s Syriana (now playing in NY & LA, expanding Dec. 9th) and it would be hard to find a more powerful indictment of American foreign policy and business practices (as if there’s really any difference between the two). The film is a sprawling epic of greed, callous indifference to human life and the real driving force behind all modern politics, money. For example, if there is more money in keeping the fundamentalists in power in Iran, you can bet your ass the US government will do whatever they can to achieve that goal.
Gaghan’s film is a geo-political thriller, structured much the same as his Steven Soderbergh-directed narcotics epic, Traffic. That Oscar®-winning picture from 2000 also had multiple story lines, all related to the central theme of narcotics (Traffic. Get it?) and let’s face it, oil, drugs…what’s the difference, really? In fact, when you talk about Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, the two are downright cozy. Syriana is a frightening look at what those of us who pay attention and read between the lines fear most about the governments of the world. Much like the villains in The Constant Gardener, the Washington DC law firms, multinational energy companies, financial analysts and the CIA/NSA bureaucrats and “spooks” in Syriana hardly have the best interests of the word at heart.
Syriana is not as tightly-structured as Soderbergh’s film and the tension isn’t ratcheted quite as high, either, with Gaghan’s touch seeming a little more detached than the material deserves. It is a massive undertaking for a first-time director and the film might have been better served by a more seasoned hand. That said, Gaghan clearly did his homework and has a deep feel for how the world of high finance and oil really affects the world we live in. Another director likely would not have brought that conscience and world view to the film and Syriana would surely have suffered for it. Turning this rather unsettling and deeply committed film into just another worldwide spy thriller would have been a crime far worse. While the resulting film is perhaps not in the odds-makers top 5 for a best picture nod, it’s certainly a contender. Well, it would be if I ran the circus!
Photos, top (L to R): Matt Damon, George Clooney and Alexander Siddig; bottom: Writer-director Stephen Gaghan
All photos ©2005 Warner Bros. Ent.