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By Ron Steinman


2 out of 4 stars

Rating Scale

Are we as an audience, and are film reviewers as a class, so naïve to believe that Syriana is a film whose purpose is to tell us what we already know about a world that is about to fall apart? The film follows four interwoven stories which finally come together in the end, with the reminder that everything is connected. For me the innocence behind the film makes it fall flat. More importantly, the four stories are old hat for anyone who keeps in touch with the world. It is here that Hollywood’s lack of sophistication about the world comes into play. Big oil is essentially evil and greedy, they tell us. The oil rich countries in the Middle East are corrupt, in concert with big oil, and even greedier. Oil sheikdoms are equally corrupt, elitists in their own way. That they work with oil companies and Western governments against their own is no secret. In the CIA, nice guys -- and that is a stretch -- finish last, and, finally, everyone in that secret agency has the morals of a cobra.

The movie wants us to believe it does not take much to turn young disillusioned Muslims, seemingly defeated morally and economically by the West, into terrorist-suicide bombers in just a few short scenes. I should note that this evolution of a pair of well-fed looking suicide bombers is the weakest part of the movie. I never thought the young men portrayed in these sequences were truly desperate. They did not seem to have an overwhelming desire for revenge against the West – meaning big oil, the arbiter of their earthly fate -- and more pointedly, America and all it represents. These well-fed young men became terrorists too quickly without enough motivation.

The writer/director Stephen Gaghan won the best screenplay Academy Award for Traffic, a stunning look at how drugs, from inception to execution, affect everyone’s lives. In Syriana, Gaghan used the same separate yet interlocking, story method as he did in Traffic. It worked better in Traffic because of the overwhelming ugliness of the story he was telling. Traffic touched on a world usually hidden from the world most people know. That was a major reason for its success. In the movie Traffic, the story also moved at a rapid pace, but not nearly the pace of the wonderful and unpretentious television series of the same name on which they based the film. In that series, the interlocking stories, and the pure grittiness of its design made me feel that I was a part of wherever the storyteller took me. The drug problem is as bad as it ever was. Now is the time to revive Traffic because a new audience awaits the brilliance of that film. Syriana is another story.

Well-crafted by Gaghan, and well-edited by Tim Squyres, shot in bold colors by director of photography Robert Elswit in at times deep contrast with broad vistas to match, Syriana remains what the director would like you to think, despite three major explosions, only a political thriller. As such, the characters sometimes talk too much and say too little. It is as if Hollywood through Syriana –is finally awake to the real world, but at 127 minutes it is far too long, even though it is a movie and not real life. The original score by Alexandre Deplat also does its required job by leaving little doubt where we are in the story and where we are about to go in each succeeding scene.

As with many Hollywood films, technically it was nearly perfect. For the most part, brilliantly directed, wonderfully filmed, and mostly, very nicely acted, yet the film fails because it is one-dimensional. It’s large cast includes a morose CIA agent played by a heavyset George Clooney. Jeffrey Wright is a sometime morally conflicted lawyer who acts very much within himself. Matt Damon plays, well, Matt Damon, as an ambitious oil broker and advisor to a Gulf state oil prince who dreams of liberalizing his state. Others in the cast such as Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Amanda Peet and Robert Foxworth acquit themselves well in parts that sometimes verge on cartoons.

Syriana as a movie is something of an unsettling fraud because it belittles the obvious. It is unsettling because, though it is mostly accurate, nothing in it is new. It is a fraud, because it dazzles us with technique, a way to hide its intellectual flaws. The director wants us to believe he has only just discovered that America is under assault from forces we don’t understand now, and probably never will, that our values have a long way to go before nirvana, and that our vision for, and of the world is flawed. The creators of this film wrap it with high priority publicity that says wake up America, reminding us there is little time left to succeed because the myriad influences out to get us are breathing down our throats. They are about to wipe us out if we are not careful, if we are not always on our guard. That message is not new, nor profound.

Visit the movie's official Web site at: http://syrianamovie.warnerbros.com/

At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.


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