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Overall Rating
3.46

Awesome: 24.64%
Worth A Look30.43%
Average: 19.57%
Pretty Bad: 17.39%
Total Crap: 7.97%

12 reviews, 66 user ratings


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Syriana
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by Erik Childress

"A Traffic Jam Without A Working Horn"
2 stars

As I watched Syriana, prepared as ever for a film to drill into the political maelstrom of the oil business, I found myself becoming distraught. Not because of the manipulative tactics and morally corrupt backroom dealings between big business and the Arab world, but that my brain capacity didn’t have the strength to process all the information that was being thrown at me. We’re going from CIA espionage to company mergers to family squabblings in the Middle East and I’m sitting there thinking “what am I missing?” The more important question is “what is Syriana missing?” This is the kind of film that separates faux intellectuals from the rest of the pack. They won’t cop to not understanding it all, so by default it must be important. Beware of such extenuating praise. I am man enough to admit that I felt like an idiot during the course of it all, but I’ve also seen enough movies to know that when a filmmaker is losing me, it’s usually his fault.

Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter* of Traffic, is based on a memoir by former CIA operative Robert Baer and becomes the inspiration for George Clooney’s Robert Barnes, who is at the end of his rope in fighting the war on terrorism and is instructed to stop writing memos on his progress. The film begins not with oil but with the botched sale of rocket launchers that no one back home wants to deal with the potential consequences of. Energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is out to pitch his company to Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) which could result in a massive windfall for his family. Back in the U.S., a potential merger between two oil companies brings Washington lawyer, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) into the mix to help smooth out the rough edges.

This swirling tale weaves from one location to another in hopes of finding the interconnecting strands where power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s problem is that it’s all talk. Not the stimulating and incendiary kind of wake-up conversation that tells us something we didn’t already know, but more the equivalent of watching an economics conference on C-Span and we’re left feeling bewildered and confused like the cast of a modern National Lampoon’s film. Perhaps we’re not meant to understand everything. How else can you explain Damon being instructed to speechify what Gaghan is getting at or Tim Blake Nelson substituting “corruption” for Gordon Gekko’s infamous “Greed is good” diatribe, like act breaks for the lame man? Everything just feels like lecture and that’s not your best recourse, talking down to an audience whose ears are already receptive to what you want to communicate.

A fundamental flaw of Syriana is the incapacity to muster up a shred of human drama to put a face on the zero sum game it’s playing. One of the subplots concerns a young Arab man out of work due to plant closings and falls in with the Paradise Now crowd, but its resonance is rooted in irony. Jeffrey Wright has a drunken father who keeps showing up on his porch steps and passed out in bars, but it offers nothing into the motivations of a character who seems to be surprised that corruption exists in Washington. There’s a tragedy that takes place early in the film that is about the most horrible thing any family can imagine. Only its used not as an emotional stipend, but merely a metaphor to suggest that if we were paying attention instead of allowing the Middle East to take care of itself, we could have prevented all the crises that have arisen from our ignorance. Where’s the plight of man in all of this?

In a futile attempt to play up the old “sons revisiting the sins of the father” adage, Gaghan has provided nearly all the major players with either a son or a father, make us aware of the strained relationship and then moves on. Traffic was able to construct interesting, flawed characters who found internal struggles as motivations for why the drug trade was such a messy plight for all involved. Besides the terrorist-in-training, where is the common man in all of this? As Joe Blue Collar has little time to care other than the price of his gas or the flaunty rich selfishly parades around in a hummer in hopes of getting one, why should any of us be caring? At no time is the environment called into question, so if all we’re supposed to be outraged at is the rich getting richer without the benefit of feeling how the poor get poorer other than daddy giving oil birthrights to baby brother, then on whose behalf are we raging?

Much like the 35 pounds that Clooney packed on to play his character, you can shout it from as many press releases as you’d like but unless it adds something to the dimensions of the film, so freaking what? At least when Stallone did it for Cop Land, it was a touch to his character and we could see a gut (under his uniform.) Clooney is fine in the role, but he still looks like Clooney and the film loses nothing if he just went on a diet prior to shooting. Syriana boasts one of the most impressive casts I’ve seen doing very little in a film I’ve seen since, well, maybe Ocean’s Twelve. Besides Clooney & Damon, there are ultra-small parts for Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt and the aforementioned Nelson who get about two scenes to say something important and then disappear. Even Jeffrey Wright, one of the most brilliant actors working today, is reduced to next-to-nothing hidden beneath the exterior of a meek character who never gets to make the impression of either how jaded or how sneaky he must become to do his job; just one of the many bouts of inconclusiveness that Syriana struggles with.

I struggled with Syriana for all of its plus two hours and thought many times during it that a second viewing would provide the clarity needed to understand its supposed self-importance. Driving home I thought about it more, unwilling to believe that I could be making excuses for myself not becoming enraptured. But the fact remains, if something exists in a film you should be able to find it. If it doesn’t, one can also fool themselves into believing that it does and then elevate themselves into a position of aptitude that can then fool others and make them feel inferior. Take two steps back from Syriana though and consider what is more likely – that it’s a wise, challenging nuclear firecracker of importance or that it’s an astounding misfire from a filmmaker whose previous directorial effort was the Katie Holmes “thriller”, Abandon, and whose screenplays since winning the Oscar for a truncated adaptation of a British miniseries* include The Alamo (which despite being released in 2004, nobody remembers) and the straight-to-video Anne Hathaway-is-a-white-homie-with-great-boobies mess, Havoc? A final image of Damon again getting Gerry’ed out in the middle of nowhere encapsulates Gaghan’s wandering around an issue that should leave us with something more substantial than one man trying to make sense of what just happened.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13517&reviewer=198
originally posted: 11/23/05 16:28:33
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User Comments

8/09/10 PAUL SHORTT ENGROSSING, WELL MADE DRAMA WITH A GREAT STAR PERFORMANCE 4 stars
7/24/10 bagwell5 Really good film. Need to see twice to get it. 4 stars
7/06/09 R Lan Too many storylines. I have no idea why Clooney won an Oscar for this role! 2 stars
5/04/09 Joe Smaltz What the hell was that? 1 stars
9/05/08 Pokejedservo Overrated and feel a bit too long but has had plenty of good aspects as well. 3 stars
7/30/08 the dork knight Hey look, it's Dr. bashir from Deep Space Nine. Awesome. Add 1 more star. 4 stars
7/12/08 Sam Very good ..too long though .. 4 stars
3/03/08 ladavies Very complex, not sure I really understood everything. 4 stars
8/13/07 Annonomiss A smart person's thriller. Paid attention to get all the plot. Couldn't stand the torture! 3 stars
5/02/07 R.W.Welch Murky machinations in the weird world of the Middle East. Good, if a shade overplotted. 4 stars
3/02/07 Dan Nice to watch a movie where you have to think for a change. 5 stars
12/24/06 danielle Movie for rich people.Disgusting oil/poli peeps. 3 stars
11/08/06 BG so happy to see I was not the only one who did not understand this film! 1 stars
9/23/06 joesurf i feel that this movie can be watched backwards and it would confuse me just the same. 2 stars
9/21/06 Shelby This is a piece of Americana that should not go unnoticed. 5 stars
9/17/06 Loop the gab not viewer-friendly but containing important themes 3 stars
8/25/06 Been There Done That Politically motivated, unrealistic, disingenuous, horse hockey 1 stars
8/15/06 John Watson Completely incomprehensible and alienating. I suddenly love Big Oil. 1 stars
7/18/06 Monday Morning Why were story, characters and interworkings so obtuse? Still was way above average. 4 stars
7/17/06 JenDenmark If you are super intelligent, then you will admit that it's crap! 1 stars
7/16/06 Wiseman You have to be a Intellegent superhuman to understand this one, dont watch if u ar dumb 1 stars
7/15/06 MikeDenmark Utterly intelligent & brilliant! Shows something about the workings of politics. 5 stars
7/12/06 MickT If you don't get it or find dull, the you are just plain DUMB! 5 stars
6/25/06 nathan excellent, complicated, powerful, well acted, but not as good as "traffic" 4 stars
6/23/06 The Talking Elbow Movie is highly disjointed Hollywood tripe that goes over your head almost on purpose. 1 stars
6/08/06 Barry Very rare to find a good movie with such realism like this, I LOVED IT! 5 stars
4/18/06 matt it was ok, I didn't understand it all though 3 stars
4/15/06 Steve Newman Great film - dont get drunk before you watch it - apr 06 4 stars
3/31/06 Brianna Holden Worst Jane Austen adaptation ever. Chaos of chaosses. 1 stars
3/18/06 MP Bartley Not as complex as people say. Engrossing, but tough to love. 4 stars
3/13/06 Roderick Cromar Gripping. I'll have to buy the book to discover what happened. 4 stars
3/04/06 HH Very accurate in the world it depicts, not an easy romcom in all regards. 5 stars
2/28/06 john bale Thought provoking though complex plot should concern us all. Clooney excells again. 4 stars
2/18/06 rich kramer the comments of other reviewers who felt it was not viewer friendly reflected my reactions! 2 stars
2/17/06 Soha Molina average 3 stars
2/10/06 elendil Rent it with a friend so you can hit pause and discuss to keep up 5 stars
2/05/06 BertRito I had no idea what was going on, yet somehow it was still OK. 3 stars
1/23/06 Donna A simple story made unnecessarily complicated. Dreary and depressing. Don't waste your time 2 stars
1/23/06 ajay I think I'm sorta intelligent, but I walked out confused and was relieved it was over. 2 stars
1/17/06 marini nielazaya like Collin Souter, I felt pretty stupid after watching it, but I think it was an important 4 stars
1/13/06 Sunny "Nice Try but NO." 2 stars
12/31/05 Faustus Smart, fast-paced and current with excellent writing, directing and acting. Fantastic film. 5 stars
12/30/05 Agent Sands Well-made, well-acted, but you've got to have a knowledge for the subject matter to follow. 4 stars
12/29/05 jcjs excellent, i even understood most of it the first time...fine work..a waring too 5 stars
12/23/05 Dee Sewell Boring not a thriller 2 stars
12/20/05 Pete Phelan rates in the all-time top 100 (even if you have to see it twice - I did) 5 stars
12/19/05 T.C. Fucking awesome 5 stars
12/18/05 ownerofdajoint A brilliant depiction of the malevolence created my mankind's super dependence on petroleum 5 stars
12/17/05 jeff have 2 b from the middle east to understand this movie. 5 stars
12/16/05 KingNeutron Interminable, brutal, stultifying, and Confusing. 2 stars
12/16/05 MV Where do the producers get the money for such an awful movie. Was the studio asleep? 1 stars
12/15/05 John Interesting, but no new info about our oil-based foreign policy. 4 stars
12/15/05 Ryan Great cast, good idea, but not well developed. 3 stars
12/15/05 millersxing Only thing "The Insider" or "Traffic" have on "Syriana" is more familiar subject matter. 5 stars
12/14/05 David That makes two of us. Couldn't agree more. 4 stars
12/14/05 dick runman confusing and sometimes boring 3 stars
12/11/05 James Wimmers I seldom ask for my money back 1 stars
12/11/05 Bentable ZzZzZ 2 stars
12/11/05 Mark Green 2 stars
12/11/05 varyouga putting politics aside, the story and character development was complete crap. boring 1 stars
12/10/05 Sergio Pretentous and confusing 2 stars
12/07/05 Christine Hill ~ ClooneyNetwork.com Incredible! Thought Provoking. 5 stars
12/05/05 Carolyn Interesting to watch unfold but doesn't leave any impact on you 4 stars
11/30/05 Booyah Boy If you ever wondered why the US is so hated... 5 stars
11/27/05 Gary Savatsky Glib, anti american, superficial 2 stars
11/24/05 Todd Corruption? In the Oil business? I had no idea. 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  23-Nov-2005 (R)
  DVD: 20-Jun-2006

UK
  03-Mar-2006

Australia
  16-Feb-2006




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