Magazine article The Spectator

Personal Priorities

Magazine article The Spectator

Personal Priorities

Article excerpt

Syriana 15, selected cinemas

'Syriana' is 'a term used by Washington think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East', according to this film's director. As the title of his film, he uses the word to describe a concept: 'the fallacious dream that you can successfully remake nation states in your own image'. Just in case you were wondering.

The biggest problem facing Syriana is to contextualise its events without losing its narrative drive. Of course we all need to know as much as we can about what is going on between the Middle East and America, but this is a motion picture, not a presentation. Since we are well aware that there is no available solution to the monstrous issues at stake, what we require from the film is insight, via the stories with which we are presented. And that doesn't just mean rushing from one continent to another in order to overhear another conversation between two men in suits.

Syriana is written and directed by Stephen Gaghan (who won an Oscar for his screenplay of Traffic), and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh (who won Best Picture, also with Traffic) so it is no surprise to see a narrative style similar to that of Traffic employed here. Our key players are Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA agent who is promised a desk job after one last hit in Beirut; Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), heir to the throne of a nameless oil-producing country in the Persian Gulf; Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an American energy analyst whose life collides tragically with Nasir's; Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a Washington attorney whose job it is to investigate a merger between two American oil companies; and Wasim (Mazhar Munir), a Pakistani looking desperately for work in the oil fields of the Gulf.

As in Traffic, the film sets up each narrative strand and then hops from one to another. Naturally enough, each story is connected and is slowly advanced towards a ragged, desperate conclusion. But where Traffic seemed cohesive, Syriana as a whole seems fractured -- the connections are forced. There are brilliant, gripping scenes but we lose impetus when we switch stories. Dialogue involves us, but information halts us.

As well as playing a part in the political drama, each character has a personal crisis waiting in the wings. Barnes has an estranged wife and a resentful son; Nasir must bargain with his fly, scheming brother for the throne; Woodman loses a son and abandons his wife for his work; Holiday's father is a drunk, found slumped on his doorstep more often than not; and Wasim loses faith in his father, turning instead to the surrogate 'family' of a radical Islamic school. …

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