Some movies have everything going for them, except that little extra ‘oomph’. “Syriana” has a screenplay from the Academy Award-winning writer of Traffic tackling another set of hot-button issues, an A-list cast and a large enough budget to achieve the epic scope it’s after. This should easily be one of the year’s best films, right? Not quite. Stephen Gaghan might have written Traffic, but that picture was directed by virtuoso filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, whereas Gaghan is on his own here. He doesn’t actually do a bad job, managing the uneasy task of maintaining dense but fluid storytelling, but it doesn’t really build up to anything.
For instance, almost all of the different plot threads revolve around a dying Arab Emir and the question of which of his two sons he’ll pick as successor: progressive Prince Nasir, who wants to deal with China and bring his country fully into the 21st century, or cunning Prince Meshal, who’s all about maintaining the unstable status quo with the Americans. This central drama is downright Shakespearean, heck, it’s this close to something out of the Old Testament. Powerful stuff yet on screen, it barely registers.
I guess Gaghan would rather explore politics and economics than go for grandiose tragedy, but then shouldn’t he have made a documentary? “Syriana” is packed with thought-provoking stuff about the connections between big oil, big money and big weapons, but there’s surprisingly little urgency to the proceedings. It’s interesting to watch the behind the scenes scheming surrounding the upcoming merger between two oil companies, who are desperate to cash in on chaos in the Middle East once they get approval from the US government, and Jeffrey Wright and Chris Cooper are naturally engaging as, respectively, a Washington lawyer and one of the Texas oil tycoons, but precious few sparks actually fly between them. Maybe that’s the point, that corruption isn’t exciting, it just happens.
Other storylines have an energy analyst played by Matt Damon and his wife (Amanda Peet) struggling with the possible correlation between the accidental death of one of their boys and a multimillion contract awarded to Damon’s firm, unemployed Pakistani migrant workers being brainwashed by Islamic extremists into becoming terrorists and George Clooney disappearing into the role of an aging, fat, bearded, morally compromised CIA agent who has something of an Orson Welles antihero to him. The scenes around Fat Clooney alternately involve infiltration, explosions, torture and being betrayed by his superiors, which brings to mind a Rambo sequel, minus the dumbass crowd-pleasing nonsense… alas.
“Syriana” is well written, well directed, well acted… No false notes here, but nothing extraordinary either. I feel like a tool expressing disappointment about such an ambitious, complex production. Maybe my expectations were too high, or misplaced. If you want to see an intelligent, relevant film, don’t miss “Syriana”. If you want stylish filmmaking, emotion and thrills, you might want to wait for something else.