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Monday, December 12, 2005

Musing Pictures: Syriana

Who is Stephen Gaghan?

At the end of "Syriana", credit is given to Gaghan for both writing and directing the film.

Looking him up, I was not so surprised to see that one of his (relatively few) other credits was for writing the screenplay to Soderbergh's "Traffic".

"Syriana" is like "Traffic" but with Oil Money replacing Drug Money as the root of corruption in a web of even more corruption that reaches the highest levels of governments that are already (you guessed it!) corrupt.

I remember "Traffic" being refreshing -- it was a web, and a complicated, disjointed one, but it was also cohesive in its clear condemnation not only of drugs, but of the terrible blood-economy of their trade.

Although "Syriana" is somewhat of a repetition of "Traffic" (that is, although it is by now approaching formulaic), it is still a fascinating film to watch.

Unlike "Traffic", the elements of the story all interrelate much more directly -- but the clarity that "Traffic" had is missing from this film.

"Traffic" did not offer any solutions to the problems of the drug trade, but somehow, in a film about the evils of the people who bargain for national oil supplies, it's hard to say that folks who drive cars, or folks who heat their homes in winter are doing something wrong -- heck, it's hard to say that folks who negotiate shady business deals in order to offer cheaper, competitive oil prices are doing something wrong (especially when we're all still paying around $2 for a gallon of gas here, compared to what we paid a year ago). Unlike "Traffic", which is a film about selfishness on a grand scale, "Syriana" seems to be an even darker film, about selflessness failing.

The CIA agent who devotes his life to his work seems to inadvertently cause the very act he hopes to prevent. The oil barons who want to make sure that their customers are buying cheap gas, that their investors are earning dividends, and that the Chinese economy doesn't out-pace their own, end up de-stabilizing the oil market and instigating their own downfall. The lawyers who want to make sure things are done according to Law discover that the Law would throw the lives of everyone around them in to chaos, if it were only adhered to. The Prince who Would Rather Be King has strong, progressive ideas, but they get him killed, rather than getting him in to power. And even the Iranian kid, who wants to find work to bring his mother out of Iran ends up a suicide bomber -- a terrorist.

"Syriana" is a depressing film, but a fascinating one -- all of these characters, with their very different stories and very different backgrounds become involved one way or another with the Big Picture. And isn't that what movies seem to be about? The Big Picture?

I've seen some wonderful intimate portraits on the screen -- films about a particular person, etc. -- but it's always about taking that person and making him or her larger-than-life. Gaghan, it seems, does the reverse. He takes The Big Picture, and somehow manages to make it fit on The Big Screen (which, of course, is much smaller than The Big Picture ever was). In that way, though, this becomes a film about ideas, and not about characters. I don't remember their names, but I remember what they stood for -- and every character in the film stands for something. That's the greatest tradgedy of it. No one is right.

I read somewhere that this is a film that doesn't aim at a conclusion. It doesn't try to solve the world's problems. I'm glad that I read that before I saw the film -- otherwise I might have expected something that wasn't ever going to be there.

I'm glad that the next movie I'm seeing is going to be light. Even though it's star probably weighs quite a few tons... "King Kong" (the 1933 version) is the next film I'll be teaching, and I'm showing it tomorrow, less than twelve hours before Peter Jackson's version goes in to wide release...

-AzS

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