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Ishtariana 

Stephen Gaghan's new Middle East potboiler is an incoherent mess

Does it matter that viewers will come out of Stephen Gaghan's Syriana having no clue what the title means? I would say that it's less directly problematic than it is directly symptomatic. Forget the title. The whole of Syriana is so opaque, poorly conceived and well-nigh incoherent that most discerning viewers (as opposed to the easily duped or self-deluding) will come out of the film wondering, "What the hell was that about?"

The title, in fact, is supposedly a term that think-tankers use for a politically reconfigured Middle East; a Wolfowitzian wet dream, if you will. What does that have to do with the story of Syriana? Not much, really. But it sounds kind of cool and meaningful, doesn't it? Such is the inane logic that seems to guide every part of Gaghan's sprawling and staggeringly inept enterprise, a lunge at geopolitical profundity that ends up as little more than an advertisement for its own pretensions.

A jammed two hours that feel like four, Syriana wants to tell us lots of important things about the world we live in, especially the nefarious and largely hidden connections between big oil, the U.S. government, our put-upon spies and their handlers, the sybaritic regimes of the Middle East and the terrorists who're doing their best to unseat them. It also wants to be a darkly engaging, crackerjack thriller comparable to '70s nuggets like The Parallax View and The Day of the Jackal.

Unfortunately, the film fails at every one of these objectives. Dramatically, it manages to be at once hectic and tedious, full of comings and goings that ultimately take us nowhere. Intellectually, it's startlingly vacuous, an evocation of our present disarray that never begins to coalesce into a cogent argument or analysis. The best you can say about it is that it features some terrific actors who manage not to look overly silly in roles that, if you think about them for two seconds, often verge on the absurd.

The movie comes to us from Section Eight, the production company run by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, who plays a role in the film, and I guess you have to give these guys credit for trying. Aside from the cheesy Ocean's 11 franchise, which keeps their outfit financially afloat, Soderbergh and Clooney seem intent on undertaking serious, important projects, and Syriana in fact is the kind of movie that more of Hollywood should be venturing to make. If it weren't such a botch, it might be a model for others to emulate.

I can't say I was terribly surprised at the film's end result. Gaghan's two prior screenplays of note, for William Friedkin's Rules of Engagement and Soderbergh's Traffic, struck me as particularly misbegotten examples of the scriptwriter's craft. While the first is sometimes howlingly awful, the second, adapted from a British TV mini-series about global drug trafficking, has a lot of surface panache and conviction, but is so glibly superficial as to virtually define the expression "a mile wide and an inch deep." That it won Gaghan an Oscar for Best Screenplay merely proves how often Hollywood mistakes pretension for accomplishment.

Second-raters who stumble into one success often go on trying to repeat it, so it's no surprise that Syriana apes Traffic, substituting oil for drugs. Only this time, without a successful TV show to copy, Gaghan shows the severe limits of his scripting skills. His screenplay is supposedly based on (or "suggested by") See No Evil by Robert Baer, a former CIA agent. I haven't read Baer's book, but reviews describe a memoir which argues that America doesn't have enough skilled agents in the field in the Middle East. There's none of that in Syriana, though, so I assume Gaghan simply lifted some scenes and ideas from Baer's nonfiction and tossed them into his clotted fictional stew.

Until Syriana came along, my nomination for the year's worst screenplay went to Paul Haggis' Crash. The two films are similar enough to suggest an unfortunate trend. Beyond their self-importance, both would-be epics share the misassumptions that a huge number of characters and subplots somehow adds up to dramatic depth, and that loudly and obviously proclaiming a film's themes (racism! corruption!) somehow substitutes for exploring them with insight and subtlety. As trite and hectoring as Crash was, though, at least it made sense. I wish the same could be said for the intelligibility train wreck that is Syriana.

Gaghan's story intercuts five separate stories: Clooney plays a CIA agent (presumably modeled on Baer) whose undercover activities take him from Tehran to Beirut; Matt Damon is a Geneva-based energy analyst who suffers a family tragedy that draws him closer to an Arab oil producer; Jeffrey Wright, as a Washington attorney, takes the politically tricky assignment of investigating the proposed merger of two energy giants; Alexander Siddig plays a reform-minded Arab prince seesawing between American and Chinese energy suitors while facing a succession crisis at home; and Mazhar Munhir appears as a Pakistani oil field worker in a nameless Arab nation who's drawn toward terrorism.

Given the kind of structure Gaghan adopts, you would assume that as the film moves forward--jumping from story to story to story--the narrative weave will grow tauter and tauter and the strands will begin to converge. Neither thing happens. After about 45 minutes in, I thought to myself, "Uh oh, this thing is just going to keep hopping from one story to the next in metronomic fashion. There's not going to be the kind of heating up and fusion that would make it all pay off."

And that's what happens. One rule for judging screenplays says that if you can remove any part of a story and it's not missed, it shouldn't be in the script in the first place. By that measure, much of Syriana--including the entire Munhir subplot--is entirely dispensable. But an even worse problem is that what's left is so muddy and confusing.

Suppose movies were graded this way: When viewers come out they're quizzed as to what they've just seen--who the characters were, what they did and what their motivations were. I promise you, if subjected to such a test, Syriana almost surely would rake in the lowest score of any major-studio movie of the last half-century.

Gaghan scripts scenes in a clipped, oblique manner that sometimes is quite sharp and intriguing on a moment-to-moment basis. But at the end of a scene--or whole sections of scenes--too often you realize you only have the vaguest idea what has just happened, and why. Then if you think about that, even it begins to crumble. If a French director or someone like David Lynch pulled the rug from under us in this way, we might consider it perverse or cleverly provocative. In Gaghan's case, though, it seems merely incompetent--and endlessly frustrating.

As to how such a hash reaches the screen, and even gets treated respectfully in many quarters, I'm not the first critic to point to a familiar bête noire: television. TV, from which (big surprise) Gaghan emerged, is all about the unintended atomization of meaning: momentary effects, big, empty gestures and the glinting impression of substance where there actually is none. As TV continues to erode cinema aesthetics, I'm afraid we'll see lots more movies like Crash and Syriana, facile mini-series crammed into two hours and pumped up on steroids of self-regard.

The greatest shame is that, no question about it, Gaghan's film wants to be seen as astutely, penetratingly "political." In that, it forms a duo with Clooney's recent Good Night, and Good Luck. Yet both left-leaning movies are so narcissistic and shallow as to suggest that "liberal" is fast becoming a synonym for "lobotomized." Clooney's film simply decants a moldy mythology that hasn't changed since the Adlai Stevenson era, and does so in a way that doesn't ask us to apply any fresh historical perspective or critical thinking to the story.

Though not so mired in the past, Syriana is similarly inclined to substitute slogans for thought. What's it saying, finally? Behind the thick fog of incomprehensibility, we sense two contemporary leftist myths. The first, concerning the conflicts surrounding the Middle East: "It's all about oil." Of course oil is a major factor, but in avoiding factors like ideology, history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the left perennially fails to get a handle on the region.

The other myth, though, is perhaps even more debilitating: "Everything is corrupt." One Syriana character even is given a cynical speech, obviously modeled on the "greed is good" soliloquy in Wall Street, that tells us that "corruption ... is why we win." A variation on the old "capitalism is evil" litany, this complaint is a prescription for complacency, not change, and its indictment ultimately doubles back on Syriana itself.

A real political movie is one that presents an analysis of social ills so precise and persuasive that it inspires you to action. A fake, Hollywood-liberal political movie like this, which settles for vague attitudinizing of the "everything is corrupt" variety, merely invites you to throw up your hands and head for the nearest empty-headed amusement. Funny how that projection of Hollywood's own corruption onto the world at large ends up lining Hollywood's pockets.

  • Stephen Gaghan's new Middle East potboiler is an incoherent mess

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