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film review **1/2: Stephen Gaghan Pens Intricate Script in ...Syriana...

Clooney, Star Ensemble Save Film From Poor Direction

By Kapil Amarnath


Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Written by Stephen Gaghan

Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright

Rated R

The Middle East contains several native species of honey bees. Syria, for example, produces 1750 tons of honey per year, and, as a result, needs thousands of workers to support the industry. Some of these workers can be disenfranchised oil workers, like the boy, Wasim (Mazhar Munir), portrayed in “Syriana.” Soon after a bee sting, Wasim makes a life-altering decision.

“Syriana” is about such decisions. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan realizes that the forces of history trickle down to determine the course of individual lives. History, in terms of U.S. interactions with the Middle East, is not favorable. The U.S.’s strategy of coercing nations in the Middle East to abide by their need for oil and money has only sustained Islamic hatred of the West and the American view that “our way is the right way.” That Gaghan is able to convey such complex ideas through his two-hour film script is remarkable. If not for the weak direction, “Syriana” would be a great film.

Energy expert Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) can’t understand the Middle Eastern man’s Thobe — how the wearer keeps it so white, how he can do work in it. He doesn’t realize that it’s a product of the religion and the weather. Woodman is American — bright-faced, entrepreneurial, practical — but he’s also short-sighted. If he, and we as Americans, cannot understand why Middle Easterners wear certain clothing, how can our government determine their directions as nations? Only when Woodman works closely with a Gulf Prince named Nasir (Alexander Siddig) does he begin to appreciate a different culture, and the two start a business relationship that can benefit both sides.

The title of the film, according to Gaghan, comes from a term used for a reshaping of the Middle East. CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney) knows that no simple solution exists in the region. He finally begins to realize that the work he has done has been towards the wrong ends, that perhaps the government wasn’t doing its part to heal the region he loves, but instead to make it safe for U.S. energy companies to take over.

While Gaghan presents a convincing, albeit pessimistic, worldview, he does not provide an artistic vision. He shoots the film realistically and fails to create any dynamic between the screen and the audience. Further, his poor choice of ambient music fails to inspire.

The opening and ending sequences of a film are often the most important in establishing and reinforcing the main themes. “Syriana” is structured much like the multi-stranded “Traffic,” which Gaghan also penned. In “Syriana,” however, the disparate elements aren’t brought together as coherently as in that movie.

Given that the movie is an ensemble, the actors have fairly small roles. Damon’s character retains the quick-talking of Will Hunting, and the always dependable Chris Cooper shines in a small role. Of all the characters, Clooney’s is the most demanding, and he has the best chance for a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars.

For corporate lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a glance at the Capitol building points him toward settling or disrupting a merger between two of the U.S.’s largest oil companies. “Syriana” escapes its problems during these transitory moments, where the viewer feels involved. Ultimately, however, more enjoyment comes after the final reel, from thinking about the questions the film raises, than during its more than two hour running time.