Dir: Stephen Gaghan (Abandon)
Paul makes a Godfather II comparison to this film in his previous review. I cannot be sure that his suggestion did not bury itself in my mind when I read that in December, but it was nice to find that I was thinking the same thing when watching Syriana.
I probably think that Syriana does not get as close to that work of genius than either Paul or Ron do, however. The subject matter is essential, the acting (especially Clooney, Damon less so) is solid, and the script is both complicated yet understandable. But in the end, I think the thematic approach of the script is a little too easy. Corporations are corrupt is such a trite message that it wears thin on me; children's movies routinely feature the meme! Yes, it is true, and yes, there are lots of people who do not quite get it. But in terms of my personal aesthetic and persuasive experience with a political movie, I want a little more analysis than just "oil men will do whatever it takes to get money."
Much more interesting than that was the examination of the Arab side of the equation. The internal power stuggles between the reform minded, forward looking brother and the cautious, conservative, and religiously minded heir apparent did much to add nuance to what is so often seen as a monolithic culture. The public relations angles, the brief scenes of the regular citizens of the country, the tension between traditional values like the unquestioned authority of the father and the needs to adapt (economically and politically and socially) to wealth and Westernization were well thought out and engaging.
Less engaging by far were the limp attempts to bring all of these machinations home to the families of the American pawns. The crying wife and the disaffected children are mechanical, formulaic, and in this case poorly done (I never liked Amanda Peet anyway). Add to that what I found to be the gratuitous child death scene, mere shock in a bid for emotional impact, and I just was not moved. Here is a screenwriting tip: if you kill a child and I don't even know their name, let alone anything about them, that is gratuitous. It's a bid to generate sympathy for Matt Damon through the instrumentality of a kid's drowning. It is both lazy and manipulative.
And that is why Syriana has good parts but gets nowhere near Godfather II. In that piece of genius, the family struggles are just as compelling, just as lovingly crafted and intricate as the almost impossibly complicated political themes. Almost impossibly, because there is a difference between smarter-than-me and confused. There is also a difference between moving and shocking. Godfather II is the former on both counts; Syriana has too much simplicity and not enough heart to rise that far.