Episodic, layered politics, like those in Soderbergh's Traffic (also written by Syriana writer/director Stephen Gaghan) permeate throughout this film, but without the grit that made Traffic work on so many different levels, Syriana ends up being a much more shallow piece - hollow where it should be thick with intrigue. Syriana, sadly enough, is supplanted upon just one level - a level of commonness undeserving of the bold and brandish material it tries so vainly to unfurl in front of us.
So many have talked of the confusion laid out in the twisting plots, and subplots, of Syriana, but it is not that confusion that sets me aback. In fact, I find no real confusion here, other than a few is he or isn't he twists that I'll go into later. Rather, it is the pedestrian manner in which the story is told as well as its subsequent filming, that pushes me away, and renders me unable to to enjoy the film on any real emotional level. It is as if Gaghan was attempting to make some sort of Alan J. Pakula/Sydney Pollack seventies-esque thriller - repleat with left wing political meanings - but was trying to do so with a buttoned-down, desert-dry, US News & World Report mannerism. He's taken all the espionage and turned it into cold calculating rhetoric instead - as if it was the pencil-pushers who were trying to write The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. In fact, I can take it one step further, by saying that even the sparstic kudos deserving of some of the steller performances in this otherwise apathetic film - mainly those of Matt Damon, Alexander Siddiq and a chubbed-up, bushy-bearded George Clooney - are not nearly spectacular enough to save this film from the doldrums it most certainly should not be mired so deep in.
There are valid questions in the narrative that need to have a more fulfilling film to surround themselves with. Is Clooney's Bob Barnes, a tired past-his-prime CIA operative, actually a rogue agent sent to ultimately sacrifice himself for the cause no one believes he is truly heartfelt about? Is Matt Damon's Bryan Woodman mearly a wide-eyed optimist, hoping vainly for world peace, or is he a calculating opportunist, set to take his place beside one of the most potentially powerful men in the world? Is Jeffrey Wright's Bennett Holiday just a man in the right place at the right time or is he a conniving shark out to grab his piece of the political pie? These are questions that require a much better movie to be of any real interest. Instead they are dragged down in a panic of too much information, in not enough time, without any significant hurrah.
Syriana is a film I wish I had liked a lot more than I did. Its political leanings - a jaded left with a mean streak of realism right down its back - is a political aesthetic I can both empathize with and revile against. Syriana (the never-mentioned-in-the-film name for a US governed free nation in a reformatted future Middle East) is a film - especially considering these political aspirations - that should have taken more chances with its interweaving narrative - much like the overrated yet intricate Traffic had done. Even during its sublime finale - incidentally the only section of the film I truly enjoyed - the inevitable gut punch that should have knocked us all cold, was left inside its own pocket, fist unclenched and limp. Not knowing which way to go with Syriana, Gaghan decide to go with the coward's way out and opted to go nowhere - slowly. [12/19/05]