|As an unrelenting assault on the politics of the world's oil industry, Syriana is some of the densest 126 minutes you'll spend in a theater. Featuring an intense number of opinions, facts, figures, and information on the complicated web of government involvement in the petroleum industry, you might feel a bit behind the pace if you view this movie without first doing some homework on current events. Even if you're up to speed on some of what the filmmakers are trying to convey, this is a film you just might have to see multiple times in order to catch everything that's presented. And if you haven't been paying close attention to the real life subject matter upon which the film is based, it's possible to be completely lost for the duration of the film.|
The journey of various characters in the film isn't what drives the movie's story or plot. As if pushed by the larger force of international politics and the oil trade, the film focuses completely on no specific character. Although George Clooney has significant billing on the movie poster, he's far from being the main actor in the film. There are no less than six major stories in Syriana that, although they're all related to the main idea, aren't equally focused upon and a few aren't even really completed. Perhaps the overall focus on the oil industry was a larger player for the filmmakers than was the story of any individual in the film.
And that just might be the single failing of the film. Although the larger points and opinions regarding the oil industry can be learned through multiple viewings of the film, the question must be raised of whether the characters presented in the story are treated with enough dignity that they can bear the weight of the intense subject matter. Issues of life and death are tossed around in this film on the shoulders of a wide group of characters whose stories don't seem as important as do the comments on the oil industry that the filmmakers are attempting to make. Calling the story "ambitious" might not be sufficient given the sheer amount of raw data thrown at the audience in this very tightly packed two hours.
Screenwriter and director Stephen Gaghan, using a book by Robert Baer as the inspiration for his story, last saw large-scale acclaim for his screenplay for the film Traffic, which was another dense feature film that involved a huge number of characters and a heavy amount of sub-plots. The danger in creating such a heavy film is that the message you're trying to convey is lost between the myriad characters and storylines circulating in the picture. Traffic and Syriana both skid by on the strength of the subject matter, with the personalities and actors tending to suffer and get lost in the political shuffle.
Even though his blindfolded face is on the front of the movie poster, the audience doesn't really get to see the inner workings of George Clooney's mind as he plays the enigmatic character "Bob Barnes." Creating a mysterious character can work for a picture's benefit in that it might engender interest in the character and his story, but it's possible that Gaghan pushed his character too far in the direction of mystery and smokescreen. Sometimes Barnes seems to be the unwitting pawn of the American government and its involvement in Middle East politics, but at other times the character seems completely in control of his situation. This waffling back and forth of motivation and purpose is never fully resolved and Clooney's character is as much an enigma at the end of the film as he was at its beginning.
And although Clooney's performance is a strong one, as are those of co-stars Alexander Siddig, Christopher Plummer, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, and Chris Cooper (among many, many others), there's not enough focused placed on his character and his portion of the plot to really consider him a main character. Likewise, none of the supporting and/or co-starring actors in the film can fully claim the spotlight, despite a very strong performance from Alexander Siddig, who plays "Prince Nasir Al-Subaai," the son of a Mid-East oil tycoon. The ideas and concerns of the oil industry and its influence of the world's governments is much more of an important player in the film.
And with the large cast viewers must keep up with, it's the subject matter that will or won't draw viewers in. With the plot constructed with as much weight as it is, the actors have a very difficult job in bringing the audience to the finish line with a clear idea of just what the story is an what issues are the most important regarding the complicated political intrigue of the oil industry. There are several strong performances, but there's just so much going on that audiences might feel a little in the dark at the conclusion of the film. The film just might have done better in a mini-series format where the ideas would have had more of a chance to make an impression on the viewer.
Review by Kelsey Wyatt.