Thursday, January 05, 2006


I finally watched Syriana yesterday. I was pretty mixed on this movie. I had heard that it was comparable to Traffic, but not as good. I can't disagree with this, though it struck me more as a John Sayles movie than a remake of Traffic. That said, it is a good movie. The acting is quite fine and the story is mostly pretty compelling.

But I did have a couple of pretty big problems with this movie. First, judging it as a movie. While again the acting and the story were pretty strong, there were some definite flaws in the script. The first was the death of Matt Damon's son. How important was that? Could Damon's character not have been inserted into the story in some less ridiculous way? As soon as the light in the pool doesn't turn on, it's obvious what is going to happen? Did the makers of this film believe it necessary to create some family drama within the movie? And if so, why? It didn't ruin the movie by any means. But it did create a digression with limited interest.

More problematic is the final scene where George Clooney tries to rescue the sheik from assassination. This action makes no sense for this character. I believed in this character all the way until the end point. I could see him threatening whoever it took to get his passports and his life back. But to make him the good guy at the end trying to rectify his previous actions is senseless. This is a guy without a moral code except to carry out the work of the US government. Other than the things that happen to him personally, there's no reason to believe he would change his ways at all and there's certainly no reason to think that he would develop a moral consciousness. I simply did not buy this at all. There were a few other things--Tim Blake Nelson's character was basically a caricature of a Texas oil executive and the scenes at the Islamic school seemed a little half-baked. But again, generally this is a solid movie and worthy of my time and money.

Now a word on the political side of the movie. Much like Good Night and Good Luck, I feel the movie is only a marginal political success. It's not that a situation as developed in Syriana couldn't happen. It certainly could. But would we really assassinate a sheik who was really trying to bring reform to that part of the world? Of course we HAVE done this before, specifically in Iran in 1953. But in today's climate with the emphasis on democracy and reform in the Middle East, I have some difficulty believing this would happen. The movie gets away with this by saying that the sheik wouldn't allow the US military to remain in his country, but of course this is absurd on multiple levels. Not having that US military there would mean that this country (United Arab Emirates or Bahrain or whoever exactly this is supposed to represent) would then have to fend for itself militarily which I don't think any of them would want to do. More importantly, I don't think the sheik would be so politically stupid as to proclaim that he wanted the US military out. I find this extremely unlikely. Wouldn't he cut a deal with the US where he could engage in his reform programs while keeping the US military on the ground and the oil more or less flowing in the right direction? Of course, you couldn't create the movie without this political tension but the whole scenario struck me as kind of false.

I would say that Syriana does a good job representing the convoluted politics the US finds itself in regarding oil, the corruptness of the Arabian countries, the situations that young Muslim men find themselves in that lead to them choosing extremist religion and martyrdom (though this part of the movie was somewhat underplayed), the nastiness of oil deals and oil companies, and the questionable regulatory farce that serves to screen Americans from the nastiness of the oil industry while allowing these huge mergers and shenanigans to go ahead. But it doesn't quite reach the point of the greatest political movies like The China Syndrome, Salt of the Earth, A Generation, Man of Marble, or even Traffic. The personal level of Syriana just did not reach the level of these other films and I think that matters a lot. For a political movie to be truly compelling it can't be a position paper. It has to reach the deeper levels of human experience that make the best kind of movies--love, fear, brooding, survival, the daily problems of our lives. I suppose the Matt Damon subplot attempted to do this but it wasn't really that successful as I mentioned above.

One definite thing going in Syriana's favor though was the ending. Whereas the end of Traffic was softpedaled and seemed to present hope that the drug war may be favorably solved with Don Cheadle walking into the house and placing the listening device under the table and Michael Douglas' daughter going through rehab, Syriana went all the way with its conclusion. And I appreciate that. Had the young Muslim characters not attacked the oil facility or the sheik not died, the whole analysis and whole film would have fallen far short of the mark it intended. I still think it did fall short, but at least it remained true to itself throughout.