Last week the Times, our often cinematically myopic Paper of Record, published a skin-deep study of the recent surge in multi-narrative ensemble films. Considering that a Times analysis usually marks the falling off point of a trend, it seems that the artistic decline of this style, as practiced by the garbled indies that employ it, has begun in earnest. And Syriana sounds the death knell in all its over-ambitious glory.
Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the pen behind the similarly structured Traffic, Syriana weaves four interconnected stories involving CIA agents, Muslim princes, corporate lawyer, energy analysts, oil barons, and suicide bombers. These players circumnavigate around the machinations of oil giant Connex, seeking to craftily finalize a merger with rival company Killen — a hot property with contracts for drilling in oil-rich Kazakhstan — while also looking to reclaim rights to an unnamed Middle Eastern country whose future leadership plans to shun corrupting U.S. business interests in favor of reform.
To completely summarize Syriana’s parallel edited plotlines would take the entire space of this column — suffice it to say they provide compressed, well-researched representations of the political, corporate, and underground maneuvering that shapes the world’s most influential industry. But while Gaghan’s astute understandings of base and superstructure are admirable, it’s his dramatic skills that remain in doubt. Already full to the point of bursting, Syriana — like many of its brethren, so determined to make sure “everything is connected” (as the film’s tagline proclaims) that it sacrifices character and legibility — is badly equipped to explore the father-son relationships that thinly play out amidst the intrigue. Guess we’ll have to wait until the release of a looser director’s cut for a fully sculpted political thesis.
Opens November 23