syriana (2005)

Alright then, so where do I begin? Syriana, as you probably don't know, is a film about the oil industry and its effects on the world's economic and political situation. Sounds like a great premise for a documentary, but not so great for a dramatic film. From the moment the movie started, I was immediately torn. It's main problem? The film is deliberately confusing. Employing Hollywood's new favorite trick, the shaky camera, the film bounces and shakes along at the same fast pace as the business deals and company mergers that it mostly consists of (which I would suppose is the point). The film is going for a sense of realism that is admirable, but admirable doesn't mean it works. While the characters are bombarded with an infinite number of proper nouns, so is the audience. The characters struggle to keep up with it all, so does the audience. Power shifts from day to day; the world seems to change at an alarmingly constant rate, and so does the movie. These elements could be made to work; a choppy, hard to follow film about a choppy hard to follow industry is a great idea, however I don't think they were executed very well here.

With a cast of characters to rival Crash, Syriana dances around in front of you, throwing ten times the amount information at you that you can process, let alone retain. It's not a smug film in the sense that it believes itself to be smarter than you are, it's smug in the sense that, deep down, it seems as though the film thinks it doesn't need you. When I entered the theater at the late night showing on a Monday night we were greeted by an empty house. This means that, had we decided not to go, the film would have been playing to a bunch of empty seats. It could not have cared less. The film goes on for hours before it seems to even recall that there are people watching it, it seems content to do its run-around all by itself forever. It's hard to watch a film like this. Movies have a sort of a symbiosis with their audience; they provide you with an entertaining or thought-provoking two hours, in turn you give them your attention. You laugh when it's called for, you cry when it's called for, you enjoy watching the film, and the film seems to enjoy being watched. But not Syriana. You stare up at it for a grueling two hours as you wrack your brain trying to decipher what the hell it's talking about. But what does it give you in return? Well, that's as far as I've gotten. It may be that it gives you a well-earned knockout of a finale; one that builds on a carefully constructed narrative and bring a meaningful climax. Or, it could be that it throws some ill-conceived, melodramatic pseudo-wrap-ups your way, hoping you won't notice that its conclusion only addressed one or two of the three hundred plot lines that were laid out during the course of the film. Again, I can't even begin to be sure. All I know is, that when the credits rolled, I felt satisfied for the first time in two hours. However, that may only be because I had been put out of my misery, and the fog had been slightly lifted on the two hour period of confusion I had just endured. The film is nothing more than an extended set-up. It's a two hour exercise in exposition that all comes down to a few minutes where something actually happens. Something this film could have definitely used was the extended flashback technique. Had the film started with a clip from the end, then gone back to show you how everything built up to that point, it would have been a far better viewing experience. But the film never lets you know where it's going, you can't see what had really been going on until it's already too late. It's only when looking back afterward that you can piece together all the things you couldn't see while it was happening. Once it's all over, you start to realize what happened, but you didn't see it coming. In that respect, this film would be a work of genius, because that's exactly how life is. 

Now that I've come to that realization, I'm starting to give the movie a bit more credit, I might just understand why this film's supporters seem to like it so much. It truly is a unique, albeit frustrating, viewing experience. I'll say this for it, I immediately wanted to watch it again. However, therein lies another dilemma. Some films are so wonderful and great the first time through that you want to view them a second time so that you can have that same experience all over again. Some films are awful at first glance, but contain a certain quality that makes you wonder if there was more to it than met your eye on the first time through. These are films that could easily be shrugged off as bad, but there were a few moments where you really thought that it approached greatness. Let's take a look at what it has going for it. The acting, for the most part, is pretty good. It doesn't have anything I would qualify as stand-out, but it services the story nicely. The cinematography, despite the slight annoyance of the shaky cam, is very nice to look at and has some nice shots. The script is nicely done, but this is a film that's more about the message it's trying to convey, rather than anything having to deal with the characters or any specific dialogue. Which brings me to probably my biggest problem with the film. If it really is all about the message and the situations, (and trust me, it is) why bother even trying to flesh out the characters and make them anything more than caricatures of the business and government types they are supposed to represent? Many half-assed attempts are made to breathe life into the roles, such as giving Matt Damon a family crisis, and having the lawyer guy have something going on with his dad (I think, it's never really stated who the guy is). The conclusions to these sub plots have no bearing at all on the overall story, and they don't help to further the message of the film. are these elements simply in here to make the film more true to life? I don't know, but they don't really work.

Well, I've mulled over it for long enough now, time to come to a decision and give you my verdict. This is a film that still has me divided, and probably will continue to do so until I can watch it again, maybe a few more times until I really get a feel for it and how good/bad it is. I might, at that point, change my rating of it and think better of it. In time, this may turn out to be one of the best films of 2005, but what I saw in my first viewing was far from it. It has many poor aspects, but is also a very original and intriguing film. for that, it gets points and also for the fact that, even though it's confusing, hard to follow, and ultimately pretty ungrateful, it really makes you want to pay attention to it. No matter how deep the message, it at least holds onto you for long enough to make itself heard. Don't hesitate to see it, just know what you're getting yourself into. Philosophically, it's the kind of smart movie-making we could use more of these days; it's got it's head in the right place, I just think the execution could use some work. Like I said, I respect it, but I can't say I liked it.