Syriana is one of those perfect examples of how an intriguing, long-form film is rendered into a sometimes confusing, heavily convoluted, and emotionally detached drama when shaped into a restrictive running time. Whether it was due to poor test screenings or pressure to deliver a film length conducive to exhibitors (longer movies = less screen time/less money), writer-director Stephen Gaghan erred when he eliminated key material audiences need to feel empathy for lead character Bob (well-played by a heavier-set George Clooney), an emotionally repressed agent who travels throughout the Middle East on secret missions, such as arms sales to Iranian rebels, and the elimination of a prince with nationalistic dreams.
The DVD's deleted scenes gallery includes two with Bob's wife (played by Greta Scacchi) - a character dropped from the theatrical cut - and the archived Clooney interview also has on-set footage of an airport scene where Bob explains to his wife why he must travel to the film's fictional Arabian country, and prevent an assassination plot. It's a key scene that would've explained why Bob races to a Jeep caravan and tries to tell the prince that his life is in danger. That's at least what we're left to believe happens, before the CIA employs some satellite surgery with a ballistic missile, and caps the film with the first of two effectively rendered downer finales.
Gaghan's screenplay follows a similar pattern as in his Oscar-winning script for Traffic: multiple narrative threads that affect each other through simple acts, which in the case of Syriana, are an aggregation bad judgments and ugly realities: scaled-down spy agencies grappling with new and culturally diverse terrorists; aging spies given nihilistic chores; the capitalistic interests of rebels who sell arms to religious terrorists; countries that harbor radical extremists with known terrorist links and their training schools; oil multinationals raping the natural resources of otherwise impoverished nascent nations; and disillusioned youths from abused migrant workers lured into suicidal assaults against anything Western or Western-influenced.
They're all hot-button topics that Gaghan organizes in the film's three main threads - an aging spy (Clooney) screwed by the agency in a dummy assignment; the financial adviser (Matt Damon) who becomes riveted to the prince's dreams of elevating his country into a self-sustaining nation; and two Pakistani youths that become martyrs - and illustrate the vicious cycles at work when classes, religion, caste, and greed collide.
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The making-of featurette has the cast describing the film as a provocative seventies-styled drama, attacking recognizable entities and figures. That makes Syriana pretty potent, although the best moments come from Damon's nasty and explosive tirades at the prince himself, which single-out the naiveté of Middle Eastern nations for entrusting their resources to U.S. interests that will abandon close ties once the oil and strategic value of a country dry up - a more brutal variation on the old Colonial empires that at least left beaurocratic institutions, railways, roads, and cricket.
Gaghan's cast is first-rate, and as Damon states in the making-of featurette, most of the actors (a truly amazing ensemble) grabbed their roles because the film's script is so provocative. Other interviews include former CIA operative Robert Baer, whose book See No Evil was the non-fiction basis for the film. Baer describes Syriana as a film about addictions - oil, international intrigue, espionage, fundamentalism, and obscene wealth - and our reluctance to address the political and corporate machinations benefiting from those addictions. Producer Jennifer Fox also adds a few words, and the featurette ends on a humanistic note for change.
Syriana is an elegantly conceived and executed film with some stunning Moroccan and Egyptian locations, and a sparse, impressionistic score by Alexandre Desplat. Warner Bros.' DVD offers a gorgeous transfer, and multiple subtitle tracks for the various languages spoken through the Middle Eastern locations. (Note: some players may not automatically load the right subtitle track, so you'll have to manually select it if non-English dialogue and the location captions aren't immediately present.)
While flawed in its current state, Syriana is one of those films actually deserving an expanded director's cut, with a need for further production details covering the writing, pre-production, and principal photography stages. Of course, you know one's likely in the works already.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan