Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Syrianna Review

Syrianna is a riveting political thriller about a very hot button issue, the oil crisis, that few people really know much about beyond the numbers that appear on gas station billboards. It was released at the right time of year so that its inevitable Oscar buzz considerations will give the material added weight which might have been what the exec producers (including the politically active George Clooney and producing partner Steven Sodebergh) were going for. Still, it's not an overtly political film.

It doesn't seek to point fingers at an administration although with our overly polarized political culture today, people are bound to dismiss it as left wing propaganda, and that's unfortunate because a work of art like this deserves to be treated as art rather than politics.The main criticism, as far as I can tell, is that the plot is too complex for the average viewer, but that's partially the point: that the oil crisis is a complex matter and that's why an easy solution isn't in the works. I'll concede that this wasn't necessarily a smart move on the filmmakers' behalf to clutter up the start of the film rather than provide an attention-grabbing opening, but the film gets easier to swallow as it goes along. Matt Damon deals with a strained marriage and the tragedy of his 6-year old son's death but sees an opportunity for an unlikely friendship and business pairing with an enlightened Arab prince. George Clooney plays a CIA operative with an estranged son and wife who treats covert operations and killing like any other 9-to-5 job until he gets betrayed by his government. Jeffery Wright plays a cold and methodical lobbyist hired to find and weed out the corrupt link in an oil merger and he's equally at ease playing a game of racquetball with his suspect as he is calling him out before the board on his corruption. And then there are the two Arab youths looking for jobs who befriend a shady man and eventually become suicide bombers. It's the human dimensions of these stories and the way Stephen Gaughan masterfully weaves them together that make the movie so engaging as the movie moves past a cluttered-up start.

Credit director Gaughan. Making his directorial debut after winning an Oscar as the screenwriter for Traffic, Gaughan appears to be a firm disciple of Stephen Sodebegh's school of film-making, as he copies some of Sodebergh's tricks: showing only parts of conversations to make it appear as though we're coming in midway, on-location shooting with an independent feel, bridging different places together illustrated by text, etc.