Rich, complex, multilayered and by turns maddening and depressing, Syriana not only makes up for Stephen Gaghan’s Abandon, but it emerges as one of the best films of the year. That said, it’s best to approach it with the understanding that it’s not the most user-friendly offering now in the multiplex.
The film’s structure, though hardly as radical as some have suggested (comparisons to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction are inapt, since elaborate time shifts are not part of the concept), is unusual in that it presents the viewer with a number of stories unfolding at the same time. All of them have some connection when the film is taken as a whole, but not to the point of offering a conclusion in the expected sense. Syriana doesn’t arrive at an answer. It leaves its complexity to speak for itself, with a bare minimum of editorializing (something Lord of War was afraid to do). What editorializing there is exists in subtle cinematic choices rather than in ham-fisted dialogue.
Moreover, the overall canvas of the film doesn’t rely on the kind of hard-to-swallow piling up of coincidences that Paul Haggis’ often-estimable Crash does. In Syriana, Gaghan is content to present the connections abstractly or symbolically. This is apt to alienate — even infuriate — viewers who want everything to bend to a single dramatic arc, which Syriana never does. Rather, the film might be said to have a single thematic arc, which is not the same thing.
Strangely, the actual story line itself isn’t all that complex. Essentially, Syriana is about a power struggle in a Middle Eastern country where the rightful heir to the throne, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig, Kingdom of Heaven), is an inconvenience to America and American oil interests. This isn’t because he is unfriendly toward America, but because he’s an idealist who wants to bring a better life to his people. His younger brother, Prince Meshal (TV actor Akbar Kurtha), on the other hand, is a self-indulgent playboy (whose brother asserts is unfit to run a brothel, let alone a country) happy to take the cash and live in a style that most people can’t even comprehend. That makes him a better choice in the eyes of American oil and political interests.
This part of the story, which is at the center of the film, isn’t where the complexity lies. Rather, the film’s depth resides in its examination of all the forces that come into play in this scenario. They can’t be called side issues, because they have bearing — whether direct or indirect — on the outcome; yet they aren’t at the heart of the plot either. This layering of stories is what makes Syriana a brilliant and challenging film. It is also what makes the movie hopeless to synopsize.
Oddly, this is also a film whose “street cred” is likely to be challenged by purists who will decry the use of very recognizable Hollywood stars and character actors in the main roles. But more realistically, this is a brilliant move — and not just from a box-office standpoint. With this many characters, this kind of casting gives the viewer something to hang onto. Otherwise, keeping track of the characters would be worse than trying to remember the names in a Russian novel.
There are no star parts, though — and there are no heroes here, merely characters caught up in a situation so complex that no single person can understand it all. And the movie doesn’t pretend to comprehend all that it presents, nor does it expect the viewer to do so. It merely connects as many of the dots as possible, offering a glimpse into a kind of nightmare — one that’s part of our very existence, whether we realize it or not.
This, after all, is a film in which the most likable character is the aged, chain-smoking, alcoholic father (William C. Mitchell, TV’s Law and Order) of ambitious — and increasingly corrupt — lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright, Broken Flowers). The old man has been reduced to a state of quiet desperation, existing only on his addictions and his impotent rage at the world around him. His most eloquent and telling gesture is when he flips off his son. In that single moment, Bennett Sr. becomes a surrogate for the filmmaker and us — roused out of self-medicated complacency to give the finger to the very things he and we have no choice but to rely upon. (Those familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle may sense a kinship here with that book’s final notion.)
Yes, his is a futile gesture of fury, but that’s in keeping with the overriding concept of Syriana, which is perhaps the most deeply pessimistic film I’ve ever seen. And I suspect that this, far more than its complexity, is what will keep the film from finding as broad an audience as it should. Syriana pictures a world in which corruption isn’t merely the order of the day, it’s the drug on which we’ve all come to depend. It exists in a realm where any attempt at reform — personal or on a broader scale — is destined to be squashed out of existence.
And it conveys this last point in a chillingly distant, impersonal manner. Nearly every scene of extreme violence and destruction is played out in dead silence and either not shown or shown from a distance. Destruction and murder have become abstractions so that we can more easily choose to ignore them. Only by stripping them to this level, Syriana refuses to let us ignore them — and that is its final genius.
If there is a more powerfully discomforting film out there, I’m not sure I’d care to sit through it. Rated R for violence and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke