As human beings, we are able to detach ourselves from injustices and hardships taking place throughout the rest of the world. Disassociation is not merely a capability, it is often a necessity for survival of the mind. Film going is often thought to be a primary means of exercising this need. Escaping into the dark of the cinema to avoid the world’s problems is both common and effective, even when dealing with more personal problems instead of the global variation. The whole theory is threatened by films like, SYRIANA, a film that makes sure you’ve been punched in the stomach and spit on while lying on the floor recovering before exiting the cineplex. The realism of the oil industry, from the US government corruption trickling all the way down to illegal workers on the verge of becoming suicide bombers in Iran, is difficult to completely grasp, even more troublesome to digest, yet still a topic that needs more awareness brought to it. What becomes easy to forget when you’re trying strongly to focus on how vast this particular reality reaches, is that this is actually not reality; it is still a movie after all. It is a reality shaped by the vision of director Stephen Gaghan.
Gaghan is the Academy Award winning screenwriter of TRAFFIC and the construction of this new story comes together much the same way. There are three separate storylines that intersect each other throughout while becoming clearer as the end draws closer. As a director, this is only Gaghan’s second project and a definite step up from his previous effort, the Katie Holmes thriller, ABANDON. He keeps the viewer engaged and affected throughout, showing as much strength and control as TRAFFIC director, Steven Soderbergh. The difference between the two is Soderbergh’s ability to better balance the time spent on your toes and the time spent clutching your chest in pain. The scope of Gaghan’s script is too vast to be fully absorbed, leaving the viewer moved but not clearly understanding why. I respect Gaghan’s ability to pick up a scene at any given time without over explaining every tangent or spending too much time contextualizing the viewer, but this can leave the viewer feeling removed. This not the desired effect when your hopes as a director lie in educating the viewer on this poignant topic. Thank goodness for home theatre and multiple screenings.
What is missing is a more human element while at the same time, most of the human elements involved seem unnecessary. Again, going back to TRAFFIC (as you will find yourself unable to resist comparing the two as well), the majority of the drug-related threats were personalized, tying the string between the drug lords mass-producing their product to the street kids and upper class privileged buying the junk. Here, the players’ humanity is incorporated to give them some characterization, depth. With so much happening in their professional lives, their personal lives seem superfluous and consequently lend nothing to their motivation, eventually being ignored and mostly unfinished. The most personalized focus comes from George Clooney’s portrayal of Bob Barnes, an agent with the CIA who seems just as lost and caught up in this cyclone of corruption, greed and power as we are. Clooney’s performance begins so quietly, so passively, and builds like a rumbling beneath your feet before a natural disaster strikes. Getting on in years and always well intentioned, Barnes no longer knows who controls his life, only that it is not himself. He has much to say but cowers when given the chance to say it. To a large extent, he has given up trying to make change. Clooney plays Barnes as exhausted, apathetic and frustrated without having the drive to change that. He has been telling the same lies and making the same deals for so long, he no longer questions to what goal they contribute. He has not been corrupted but he turns his eyes to every command he executes under the moral armor that his decisions are not his own. Only they are.
Gaghan’s camera is constantly positioned either very close or very far from the action, sometimes within the same scene. The effect is a varied degree of understanding, that we are closer to the problem than we think one minute and then detached and removed, lost, the next, with numerous obstacles obstructing our view. We try to piece together the connection between the American government, the Saudi monarchy, the corporate control, the legal whitewashing and the resulting racism that instills fear and lack of understanding of everything Arab, and hatred of America by the Arab people. I walked in with a vague understanding of the interconnectedness of all these issues and left SYRIANA with the concrete knowledge that it is oh so much more complicated than I originally thought.