just got back from seeing george clooney’s ambitious epic syriana, the latest manifestation of my increasing fascination with the middle east, its oil and the politics of the region.
under the tag line “everything is connected”, the film weaves together the stories of a rogue cia agent (clooney), a smart but naïve securities trader (matt damon), the royal family of an unnamed arabian emirate, a young pakistani worker for a major american oil company discovering the meaning of his faith and a morally conflicted lawyer trying to investigate the merger of two oil companies and to negotiate for them. That’s a lot of plot to fit into two hours.
unfortunately, the net result of the elaborate plotting is that the movie is almost incomprehensible at times, with references that never seem to get sorted out. also, the sheer number of characters who have active roles in the movie make it pretty much impossible to get any who are well-rounded and developed. instead, there is a parade of caricatures for whom it is difficult to develop much sympathy (it’s hard enough to remember their names). There are good americans and bad americans. There are good arabs and bad arabs. there are good women, well, actually, there are no women, save lightweight amanda peet as the textbook american wife of the 21st century.
there are good elements to syriana to be sure and these may, in the end, outweigh its obvious flaws. british-sudanese actor alexander siddig (the real-life nephew of Malcolm macdowell) is impressive as the beatific prince nasir. his opposite number in the film is the appropriately malevolent chris cooper, playing an american oil executive a lot smarter than his southern drawl and cowboy act would lead you to believe. clooney himself is very decent and takes a few steps further towards cementing his position as this generation’s robert redford.
one of the most telling things about this movie is how little the arab characters are involved in the high-level machinations that control their lives. the film’s dramatic climax, when siddig comes face to face for the first time with clooney, is dramatic, because at that moment, the extent of the intrigue that has been going on around him becomes evident. however, for the most part, it is the americans who control all the action, manipulating the arabs to suit their own ends. at the moment when the viewer could level the criticism that it makes the same mistake as american films often do- making it all about the americans and not understanding the cultural others who are supposedly the subjects- syriana makes a chilling reversal in its final minutes. it can’t redeem the film entirely, but the last twenty minutes more than justify the price of admission.