The last thing I expected Syriana to be was an endurance test. The intriguing trailers have been floating around for several months now and my anticipation was at its peak as I headed into the screening. Low and behold, writer/director Stephen Gaghan, working from the book by Robert Baer, manages to take one of the hottest and most controversial topics in the world and turn it into a convoluted snooze fest. Color me shocked.
Syriana hop scotches around the world in an attempt to show us the devastating effects of oil greed. The film offers little new insight into why we face the issues we do with the Middle East in regards to oil and instead elects to tell three intersecting stories, only one of which is remotely compelling. I can’t help but be baffled by the lack of powerful scenes in a film that should have been brimming over with intensity.
The weaving story begins with Bob Barnes (Clooney), a CIA operative who discovers some wrongdoings in Iran. He becomes a liability to the government, and they show him the door. In Geneva, Bryan Woodman (Damon), a U.S. “energy analyst,” and his wife, Julie (Peet), face unimaginable despair after losing one of their children, but Bryan presses on with his job and his ties to a Gulf prince (Alexander Siddig). Back in the United States, Bennett Holliday (Wright), a corporate lawyer, faces a moral predicament as he oversees the merger of two dominating oil companies that will change the world’s oil landscape from a business standpoint.
This is powerful material, but Gaghan elects to show us the parts we, the audience, would be sleeping through if we were the ones in the endless meetings. An annoying hand-held camera is utilized to try and give the illusion of excitement, but it is to no avail. The locations change about every three minutes, depending on the scene, making for a bewildering plot experience. This is the kind of film where a character is tortured, beaten, and left for dead in the Middle East only to magically appear safely in the Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C. just one scene later. You’ll need an abacus to count the number of title cards.
It’s hard to fault the actors, all of whom are well-cast and perform the mediocre screenplay as best as they can. George Clooney steps out of his People Magazine persona and sports a beard and about thirty extra pounds. He brings a quiet intensity to otherwise dull scenes. Matt Damon is believable as the motivated and well-educated number cruncher that has a word or two of advice for the Middle Eastern oil princes. Jeffrey Wright, one of the most underrated actors working today, gives a powerful performance as the morally confused Bennett who simply wishes he could please everyone.
Those who find the deep inner workings of government corruption endlessly fascinating may find something to take away from Syriana, but by and large this is one of the slowest and most tedious films of the year – and certainly the biggest blown opportunity. A story done right about oil greed has the potential to be an authoritative must-see, but Syriana is not that film.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 126 Minutes
Rating: R for violence and language.
Theatrical Release: November 23, 2005 (Limited) / December 9, 2005 (Wide)
Directed by: Stephen Gaghan
Written by: Stephen Gaghan. Based upon the suggested book by Robert Baer.
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Siddig, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer