Thursday, August 07, 2008

WFAT: Syriana

“Everything is Connected”, touts the tagline for Syriana, a film whose very incoherence starkly challenges this assertion. Alternately tedious and histrionic, with wooden acting and facile writing, Syriana accompanies its own ineptitude with an unwavering confidence in its indecipherable plot. The result is one of the very worst films ever made.

The movie begins with a scene of workers in, well, I don’t remember where. It doesn’t matter. The Middle East of Syriana is not a collective of nations, but one continuous landscape of oppression, bazookas and oil. I suppose one could attribute the film’s equivocal geography to a commentary on our own knowledge of the region. If this were an entertaining film, this commentary might be compelling. Instead, it is simply confusing.

They work for an American oil company, the bus people, but the movie will get back to them later. See, this is one of those hyperlink films, wherein the audience is treated to a bifurcated narrative that eventually intertwines, or pretends to do so. Such films are ideal for yielding supporting actor Oscars for famous people.

Which brings us to The Clooneychrist, who, in an undeservedly Oscar-winning turn, plays a character of nebulous origin whose job title does not appear on anyone’s payroll. In other words, the same damn character he plays in every other movie. In CC’s world, the only people who earn an honest living are movie stars.

The CIA sends CC to Beirut, where he is tortured by a fellow named Mussawi, aka Jimmy. Why is he tortured? I have no idea. Maybe he caught an advanced screening of the film. Mussawi gives one of those obligatory Reservoir Dogs speeches about how he is going to go about torturing. Then, just before he is beheaded, CC is rescued by Hezbollah (!?) and sent home.

At home, he finds that he is under investigation because, well, there is a cover up. Can’t trust anyone and all that. I mean, I’m just guessing here. The movie provides us with no information. That’s okay, because CC holds all the cards. He threatens to kill a guy, and isn’t under investigation anymore. So that’s good.

Meanwhile, two oil companies are planning a merger. Mergers are bad, and oil companies are bad, so you can bet that the oil company executives are very bad. They are investigated by a lawyer from, I dunno, the Justice Department? Doesn’t matter. He is black, which is Hollywood’s way of communicating that he is a good guy. You get no points for guessing that the oil executives take him on a hunting trip.

Matt Damon plays an energy speculator. He has marital strife, and he plays the pivotal role of the guy who is famous enough that we recognize him when the film needs to arbitrarily tie all of its plot strands together. His son dies in an electrified swimming pool brimming with plausibility. He befriends the prince of, I dunno, Middleasternistan, who favors reform. We can tell he is a good prince because he doesn’t look as Middle Eastern as some of the other ones.

Back to the bus people. They are workers for the oil company that is about to merge, and are laid off as a result of the merger. The father of a teenager is beaten to death by official-looking people, and so he finds work at an apiary. He also begins attending Mosque with results that are in no way predictable.

And so the film does its thing, negotiating its various plotlines with all the seamlessness and subtlety of a bulldozer. Instead of behaving the way normal people would under the circumstances (whatever those might be), they engage in minute-long political diatribes. Things in Middleasternistan are complicated, you see. So complicated, in fact, that it requires literally DOZENS of seconds to explain.

The oil executive tells us that he is a self-made man… That’s complicated. A random lobbyist evokes Milton Friedman in defending his efforts (economists will be surprised to learn that Friedman advocated corruption by name). Matt Damon gives one of his smarty-pants Good Will Hunting speeches about how the Middleasternistani prince can expand his economy, who retorts that American policy is the only thing standing in the way reform. The Clooneychrist gives us the Iran 1952 spiel.

And so on… The only thing Syriana makes clear is its politics, which carry all the nuance of ad. The oil people order the CIA to kill the reformer prince because oil people will murder anyone to get their way, and the beekeeping teen leads a renegade band of terrorists on a waverunner suicide mission. Everything is America’s fault. The end.

Syriana was almost universally praised by critics, likely out of concurrence with the film’s extremist politics. Roger Ebert, in slavishly touting the film, explains that the plot should be indecipherable, because our policy in the Middle East is the same way. But if our policy is so difficult to navigate, how can it be so readily dismissed? The characters in Syriana, though they are surrounded by complicated events, are simple-minded and uninteresting,

The end result is a film that is not at all entertaining, which is telling. If you are making a film as polemic, your characters should be convincing, else what do we conclude about the polemic? Syriana is a walking argument against its own viewpoint, and a damning condemnation of those liberals who ignore the genuine complexity of oil’s geopolitical history in favor of their own partisan narrative.


Blogger Sarah said...

The only good part of Syriana was the torture scene.

But if you thought this film was bad, it's not as bad as Clooney's "Solaris".

Unfortunately these 2 have turned me off ot Clooney flicks. I was very tentative to see "Michael Clayton" which was better but Clooney needs to do better.

10:33 AM  
Blogger old pappy from mississappy said...

Too bad you lack the insight to appreciate this film. You might consider taking a film appreciation class at the local community college. That is, if you have a college degree.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

I have a college degree, studied film theory at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and took coursework in screenwriting at Pomona College. The only legitimate study of this film from would occur, as you imply, at a community college. Hyperlink movies are not well regarded in academic circles.

Can you defend the mise-en-scene of the torture sequence as anything other than derivative or predictable? That's just one obvious example.

11:03 AM  

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