Oil or Nothing

I always make an effort to see a movie fresh, but this method failed me when I watched the complicated “Syriana.” It seems like I should’ve studied or researched or done some movie homework. Heck, what I went through was a like bad episode of a pop quiz. It was two hours of me winging it to the best of my abilities, constantly guessing as to what’s exactly happening. Seriously, I think I flunked it. And now, I’m about to attempt a review. Am I going to wing this one too? Yup, I’m flapping like crazy.

Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana” revolves around the combustible pairing of oil and money. It’s a convoluted story of greed, ethics, power, and politics, told from the POVs of numerous characters. George Clooney plays a government agent who’s like a spy. Jeffrey Wright plays a government official who’s like an investigator. Matt Damon plays an energy analyst who’s like an adviser. (And I’m a writer who’s like a bad describer). There are more characters to describe, but since I tend to not take notes during a movie, I can’t enumerate them all. Besides, I don’t only need a list. I also need a diagram on how the characters are related. But wait a minute, why am I being accommodating? The film worked so hard in making its story disobliging. I should be courteous to let you undergo the same confusion and aggravation as I did.

The impenetrable narrative is the biggest obstacle in watching “Syriana.” Gaghan may think he’s challenging the moviegoer, but it may come across as discouraging. The screenplay has a snobbish stench of “I’m an all-important, all-relevant, all-star movie. I’m too intelligent to condescend to you, average viewers, who don’t know shit about the politics of oil business. So I demand all your attention to me. It’s all or nothing!”

For viewers who possess colossal patience and fascination towards the subject, “Syriana” will be rewarding. Since I’m not in that category, I had to look for ways to hang in there. I stayed alert by looking for clues as to why Clooney won an Oscar. Also, focusing on the little character dramas really helped, especially those involving moral conflicts. Sooner or later, I found myself watching the surprising last act, which is absorbing and thrilling, unlike the preceding scenes. By the time the end credits rolled, I was amazed how I suddenly like the movie. Besides the stubborn and uneasy plot narrative, I admit “Syriana” to be a well-oiled motion picture.

Since my reactions ranged from hate to love and frustration to appreciation, “Syriana” is tough to evaluate. Sure, I was eventually turned by the ending, but I have to judge the movie as a whole. I have to look at the big picture, which causes me step back further and further. The more I think about it, the more I realize I’m thinking too much and putting too much work for a single movie. Indeed, “Syriana” is an ambitious film, a thought-provoking piece of drama. But for a movie which seems well-informed on the oil business and politics, it has little knowledge on how to tell a lucid story cinematically. Even if the filmmaker purposefully made the film confusing, the reason should come across clear. Otherwise, you’re asking the audience to be a mind reader. Gaghan, I hope you’re taking notes because I don’t want to take notes on your next movie.

Grade: B+

CAST
George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Jeffrey Wright, Tim Blake Nelson, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, and Mazhar Munir
Based on the book “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism” by
Robert Baer
Written and directed by
Stephen Gaghan
Rated R for violence and language

MOVIE AFTERTHOUGHT:
Piecing Movie Puzzles
It used to be that while we are watching movie puzzles, there’s a protagonist piecing the puzzles along with us. Now, screenwriters have the audacity to leave us alone in being puzzled. I hope this doesn’t become a trend. I know some writers would jump in and follow the confusing structure and think they’re freaking brilliant. I would predict that writing a messy creenplay is easier than a lucid one. Don’t get me wrong – I love perplexing movies like “Mulholland Drive” and “Primer.” But it’s not that perplexity that makes them brilliant – it’s their ability to mesmerize and hook an audience to counter the film’s potential to discourage. If you look at “Syriana” or “Stay,” they work harder on being a constant puzzle. They may have a hidden meaningful message, and would likely remain hidden among impatient viewers. It’s one thing to demand attention from the audience, but it may come across as working the moviegoer too hard.

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