by Chris Knipp
Syriana is a stew. Stephen Gaghan, who wrote and directed it, is the cook. He has gone back to an excellent recipe that worked well for him five years ago, which came directly from the superb 1989 British TV miniseries, Traffik , written by Simon Moore and directed by Alistair Reed. That series was a goldmine for him -- and not surprisingly: it was profound stuff, and compulsive watching.
Gaghan followed this recipe for the first time writing a direct adaptation of the UK miniseries for the Hollywood screen. The result, Traffic (2000), directed by Steven Soderbergh, moved back and forth between Mexico and the United States, rather than Europe and Asia as in the original. The drug became cocaine instead of heroin. And the number of main languages was reduced from three to two. To further simplify, Gaghan took out a major Traffik subplot about the plight of a poor poppy grower who can't support his family growing other crops. There aren't any poor drug producers at the bottom of Soderbergh's Traffic, only warring drug lords and corrupt officials and corruptible cops. Soderbergh also added a batch of well-known actors, including Michael Douglas and his new wife Catherine Zeta-Jones. The result could hardly compete with Moore's Traffik for richness and momentum and verisimilitude, but the Traffik recipe was well condensed, a good movie resulted, and Oscars were awarded, including Best Screenplay to Gaghan.
A year later Gaghan tried to direct his own film (with his screenplay), Abandon , with Katie Holmes, Benjamin Bratt, and Charlie Hunnam, about a college senior whose life gets too complicated when her old boyfriend reappears. The movie disappeared without a sound.
This time, five years since Traffic, Gaghan has gone back and drawn on the formula that got him an Oscar. Both writing and directing again, he has recast Robert Baer's memoir of life as a CIA foot soldier, :"See No Evil," applying the Traffik formula to make a screenplay with a multi-layered plot out of it. The focus has changed to US control of oil and the Mideast and world power struggles, instead of the global drug nexus.
To work on this ambitious level, Gaghan got lots of help from the Soderbergh-Clooney brat pack. Their production company Section Eight is involved, and Ocean's pal Matt Damon has a central role with his new wife Amanda Peet. American characters include stars like William Hurt, barely visible; Chris Cooper, in another of his increasingly familiar organization bad guy roles; Christopher Plummer as a haughty CEO, and Jeffrey Wright as a very buttoned down corporate lawyer with a failed papa. Above all there's Clooney himself as the central figure, a beleaguered CIA operative (Clooney's commitment to the role included 30 extra pounds and a beard; this time he is neither debonair nor handsome). There is also excellent casting for the Arab and Pakistani roles, though the only one likely to be recognized is Alexander Siddig of Kingdom of Heaven as the ambitious Gulf prince, Nasir Al-Subaai. Inspired by the authenticity of Moore's Traffik, which he recreated for Soderbergh's film, Gaghan has produced a whole panoply of real-seeming settings and sets of people.
But most scenes go by too fast or appear too briefly to be fully appreciated. Syriana is not only an old recipe with new ingredients added, like a pot-au-feu, but has a chaotic feel; it's rich and tasty but indigestible.That the multilayered approach doesn't work as well for the audience in Syriana as it did in Traffik or Traffic is indicated by the fact that almost everybody throws up their hands at following the plot, at some point admitting they've forgotten what language was being spoken, who a character was, or exactly what he had to do with the main sequence of which he presumably was a part. It's not clear Gaghan can edit or direct as well as Soderbergh did with his Traffic screenplay. Gaghan switches back and forth between subplots faster than he (or Soderbergh's editor) did in Traffic, sometimes giving us only a few seconds to see something starting to happen. He tries too hard to say too much in too little time. The ladle stirs the pot so fast the stew's splashing out.
This is not to say the movie has no rewards. It is to be commended for its high seriousness, even though like Clooney's very fine Good Night, and Good Luck it's a little self-important (Traffik avoided that). What it has to say is complex and sophisticated. The topics raised are more numerous than those mentioned here but include the skimming off the top by oil monarchs; the role of China as the emerging major economy; the US administration's blocking of intelligence that undercuts its right wing agendas; long distance push-button assassinations; bribery and corruption as major features of world business, American style; and the recruitment and training of a jihadist -- which this time provides an underdog equivalent to the poor poppy grower type Gaghan left out of Traffic. The kinds of Arabic used may or may not be authentic for the situations -- despite much study of the language, I can't really say -- but at least it's present wherever it should be, as is the language of the future terrorists in the madrasa. It's made clear that oil company CEO's are cynical but don't know very well what they're doing. Hardly anybody does, in this picture, and that's the way things probably are in the world according to Robert Baer. Whether that makes a really good movie is another question. I was amused by the New Yorker critic who wrote Syriana was "a major film without being a great film." Yeah. And it's going to make some people really mad, if they bother to go see it. I can't wait for the CIA, the oil experts, and the Arabists to have a go at it.
©2005 Chris Knipp