SYRIANA (Stephen Gaghan, USA, 2005, 4)
This is a movie about a country that assassinates Arab leaders with car bombs. Because this movie was called SYRIANA, I assumed it’d be about the similar-sounding country Syria, which has a habit of doing this. But alas, this is Hollywood movie and so having Arabs as the main villains would be unthinkable. Remember when the book of SUM OF ALL FEARS had Muslim terrorists trying to nuke a US city. Hollywood decided that was stupid and so rewrote the movie script with the much more believable, hard-hitting, risk-taking and relevant story line of *neo-Nazis* trying to nuke a city. (Doesn’t everybody go to bed at night worrying about neo-Nazi weapons of mass destruction? I know I sure do.) That rewrite was so awesome that, since the notion of Arab states or Arab terrorists car-bombing each other’s leaders and leaving craters in each other’s highways is obviously equally stupid, the film-makers decide to make a movie in which the *CIA* does such things. And by push-button from an office in Washington, like in a long-distance video game.
The real CIA doesn’t even want to give the rubber-hose treatment to captured terrorists in secret prisons and is far more adept at overthrowing White House policies it doesn’t like (for any number of a-ideological, institutional reasons) than at assassinating foreign princes. But then, SYRIANA also takes place in that weird alternate universe where Arab princes need to be advised by a mid-level 30-ish American bourgeois oil-industry analyst (one who sees Mossadeq as an inspiration, BTW) that they should invest their wealth to create a real economy for when the oil runs out. (Hand slaps forehead.)
And by gum, if Hollywood is gonna show Muslim suicide bombers, then it’s ferdamnsure gonna contextualize and/or minimize them — by (1) making them exploited Pakistanis (not the typical suicide terrorist profile); by (2) making their target an oil industry installation (rather than, say, US jetliners, or European trains, or Iraqi mosques or Israeli pizza parlors or German discotheques or wheelchair-bound American Jews); and by (3) portraying the explosion by turning the screen to white light as the bomber closes his eyes and gets ready for his 72 virgins (rather than say, showing fire, mangled corpses, blown-up pipes, loss of wealth for Matt Damon’s idea of investments).
Actually, ideological beefs aside, SYRIANA has a far far FAR more basic problem — you can’t make nor tail of it while following it. Roger Ebert put SYRIANA #2 on his Ten-Best list (I will not, obviously). But his capsule on that list is actually revealing in ways I don’t think he intended:
Stephen Gaghan’s film doesn’t reveal the plot, but surrounds us with it … no one in this movie understands the big picture.
That about sums it up, I think, and in my book that’s a pretty good definition of bad storytelling. Ebert’s regular review is more of the same, and frankly it’s inconceivable to me that someone could write this way about a movie he liked:
Even then, the studio e-mailed critics a helpful guide to the characters. I didn’t look at it. Didn’t want to. I liked the way I experienced the film: I couldn’t explain the story, but I never felt lost in it … Already I regret listing all of these names. You now have little tic-tac-toe designs on your eyeballs. … The more you describe it, the more you miss the point. It is not a linear progression from problem to solution. It is all problem. The audience enjoys the process, not the progress. We’re like athletes who get so wrapped up in the game we forget about the score.
But the analogy in Ebert’s last sentence, about getting buried in stats and progress presupposes something not the case in SYRIANA — the intelligibility of the game itself. No sport is interesting if you don’t understand how it is played. To remember the score, we, the audience, at least have to know what the game is, what the rules are, how you score, whether high score or low score wins, etc. This movie is such a total mess, its action just tossed in media res in from nowhere — “surrounds us with the plot” — that it’s like PRIMER on a $50 million budget.
One of the all-time great Hollywood movies, and also one of the most popular and beloved, has an unintelligible plot about a man thrown into political and spy intrigue about which he doesn’t have a clue. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST — a film that stands in rebuke of SYRIANA as an example of how to make unintelligible intrigue into a coherent, watchable and exciting plot (but try reciting what happens in NORTH BY NORTHWEST off the top of your head).
First — concentrate on a single character with whom the audience identifies and give him a single role and aim (finding George Kaplan). SYRIANA juggles plot threads and has no central character.
Second, make him as clueless as we. SYRIANA is filled with characters who know stuff and withhold it from other characters and thus us.
Third, and this is the most important, don’t get bogged down in the MacGuffin. In Hitchcock’s terms, SYRIANA is a film that is not about the human beings, but only about the MacGuffin(s) they encounter, written by a man who thinks unraveling the MacGuffin matters. Coincidentally (or not), this was a tick Hitchcock, in his book-length interview by Francois Truffaut, said he always had to warn screenwriters off.
In the same interview, Hitchcock said NORTH BY NORTHWEST was his best MacGuffin because it was “nothing at all.” But imagine NORTH BY NORTHWEST if it followed James Mason and Martin Landau from the beginning, had a separate Eva Marie Saint plot thread, and was concerned with the business of every character at the meeting headed by Leo G. Carroll, where it’s decided that there’s nothing that can be done for Cary Grant without blowing Kaplan’s cover. And we could hear Carroll’s explanation of everything to Grant that Hitchcock wisely obscured with a roaring plane engine. That’s SYRIANA, in a nutshell.
I can’t make any reference to Ebert’s Top 10 listing of SYRIANA without noting this … remarkable … quote:
The movie has been called “liberal,” but it is apolitical, suggesting that all of the players in the oil game are corrupt and compromised, and in some bleak sense must be, in order to defend their interests — and ours.
If this act of “suggesting” is Ebert’s idea of “apolitical” … words fail me. As if “Oil = Evil/Oil Causes Evil/We’re Evil Because of Oil” isn’t the quintessential liberal stance on a host of issues (particularly for the Lifestyle Left, as distinct from the union hardhats who once formed the Democrat Party’s base). From climate change to automotive regulations to urban sprawl to Alaskan or offshore drilling to Bush’s personality to war and peace itself (as in “No Blood for —–“) … whatever side “oil” is on, liberals will be on the other as if it were a law of nature.
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