Wednesday, December 07, 2005

syriana (spoiler free too!)

i've been trying to come up with a way to write about syriana, but it's a hard film to review without just trying to recount the entire convoluted story. still, it's a good movie, a complex movie. it doesn't hold your hand but rather it makes the viewer work a little to keep up. at the same time it's not unmanageable. as much as i had to pay attention, i never felt lost. and so i highly recommend the film if you're into intricate plots of international intrigue.

at the same time, i'm convinced that the overarching plot doesn't really make sense. the movie's premise is based on a political struggle over succession in a small unnamed oil producing gulf state, and a business deal to extract oil from kazakhstan. somehow the two have to be connected and yet they never explain the connection, nor could i come up with a plausible one that would explain all the character's motivations. i don't think i just missed it either. while it is true, as amy says: "blink and you will miss a name, plot twist, or mildly cloaked reference to actual people and events." i don't think the problem is that i blinked at the wrong place. none of the people i saw it with found the connection either.

ironically i think it is in a large complex movie like this, where everyone is paying close attention, that it's easiest to get away with a plot hole, even one sitting in plain sight. everyone comes out convinced that they missed the one critical piece that they're afraid to state the obvious. so i've decided to go on a limb and say that i think: at its heart, the plot of "syriana" doesn't make sense.

that's not to say i didn't enjoy it. there's a certain artistry in its complexity and the way that it challenges you to keep up. the movie leaves a lot of question marks that you are left on your own to figure out--who is working for who, what their agenda is, what exactly george clooney was trying to do in his last scene in the film, etc. this is the type of film that you deconstruct outside the theater with your friends and which, even as you exit the theater, you want to see again. (or at least see the special edition DVD with all the deleted scenes so you can fill in those plot holes)

of course the biggest issue raised by the film is how much it relates to the real world. real places and real people come up all the time tangentially in the film. the characters mention the bin laden group, former iranian president khatami, etc., all in casual conversation. there's one line that probably won't make much sense unless you happen to know that nursultan nazarbayev is the president of kazakhstan (i guess the film-makers really went out on a limb and bet that he would win this week's election). on the other hand, none of the references are critical to understanding the plot. they're more of a wink to the politics nerds in the audience.

as for places, while the film has no problem bringing up real locations (e.g. tehran, beirut), the country most central to the plot is just that unnamed gulf emirate. i guess it could be one of several different countries, except that the place is ruled by the al-sabah family, which happens also to be the name of the ruling family of kuwait. that's not to say that it necessarily is kuwait. maybe they were just trying to do another wink. or maybe they were trying to generate more publicity for the film when it is inevitably banned there. who knows?

oddly, there is no "syriana" in the film. they never use the word at all and so it's not clear what the title is supposed to mean. my best guess is that it's the name of the unnamed gulf state. but if that were the case, why not just call it "syriana" in the film rather than go through all the effort to make sure no character ever needed to utter the name of the place? of course, the name sounds like "syria", a country that is entirely absent from the film. nor are there any references to iraq or saudi arabia, both notable omissions in a movie about middle eastern oil. i guess bringing up iraq would open a whole other can of worms and move the film off focus from what it was trying to do. but it's impossible not to think about iraq when you watch this movie. it's the real elephant in the room, even as the movie offers no answers to that particular problem.

UPDATE (12/8/05): duncan posted a transcript of the NPR interview with former CIA agent robert baer (audio is here). syriana is loosely based on baer's nonfiction book See No Evil. his NPR interview addresses two of the questions i raised above: he explains what the word "syriana" means and gives a non-explanation for the gulf-kazakhstan connection plot hole. personally, i think the latter is a pretty lame excuse, but you can judge for yourself after you read or hear the interview.