Doves, hawks and road maps
Directed by Stephen Gaghan – writer of Soderberg’s superb ‘Traffic’ – Syriana is a complex and fragmented web of stories that aims to provide a snapshot of the ways in which the US pursues its oil interests in the Middle East. In the same way that Traffic examined the US’ war on drugs in the context of its relationship with Mexico, Syriana throws a spotlight on the US’ hypocritical dealings with Arab nations and the terror it provokes (both the state-sponsored kind and that of Islamic martyrdom).
The film is unapologetically confusing, drifting between a raft of obscure, character-driven stories without any overt attempt to help the viewers orientate themselves. In a sense it doesn’t matter – in the same way that it doesn’t matter if you understand all the dialogue in the West Wing – the message and implications are engaging even if the details aren’t clear. Put together skillfully with good individual performances all round, it is shot in starched, bleached tones, be it in the desert or the encroaching skyscrapers – edifices of modernity that reflect a dazzling indifference. The camera work roams relentlessly in the manner of war reportage, adding to the sense of urgency and impending terror.
There are few surprises in a film about corruption and fundamentalism – both Islamic and Capitalist – and the plot revolving around the brainwashing of a young muslim ex-oil worker into a suicide bomber is somewhat simplistic. The fragmented style, with loosely connected plots overlapping, could also be compared to 21 Grams, but it is the shadow of Traffic that looms over Syriana, which can’t quite match the strength of that film’s humanity (brought about by its strong individual characterisations, not least that of Benetio Del Torro). Nevertheless, it is an impressive work brought about by a burgeoning liberal film scene that – unlike Michael Moore – genuinely deserves to be taken seriously.