Black Gold: Syriana soars on substance, sinks on politics.
Syriana opens with a throng of Arab men quarreling over the right to board a bus. The camera peers at the scene through a heavy morning mist that blankets the surroundings in a deep gray fog, and though we can see the agitated movements of confrontation, we can hear no dialog — only a simmering, nervous score. It is a telling moment that, like much of the film, reveals itself only through obfuscation. For in Syriana, every look is a tremor rippling with uncertainty, and every word is a half-truth spoken in code. A web of desultory plot-strings chronicling terrorism, espionage, and the oil business, writer and director Stephen Gaghan’s film is a cryptic tangle of conspiracy and interconnectedness. It is the sort of dense, ambiguous thriller rarely seen in Hollywood. And while it ends in a dismaying hodgepodge of conventional liberal piffle, it is first and foremost an intellectually engaging thriller that drills a deep well of complicity and complexity.
Like the intersecting drugs-and-government narratives in Traffic, which Gaghan also wrote, Syriana juggles a wide cast of characters, locales, and plotlines. From Beirut to Houston to Georgetown, the film maps a sprawling maze of contradictory motives and chance meetings, all with a stubborn sense of minimalism and misdirection. Those who avoid movies that could be described as “confusing” would be advised to stay away, for Gaghan’s script has the narrative density of lead, offering only molecule-sized hints as signposts by which to guide viewers through the labyrinthine passageways that connect American government, business, and oil interests.Gaghan reportedly spent time in Washington researching the connections between government and industry, and whatever his film’s political distortions, he chisels out a wry, unrelentingly bleak image of the nation’s capitol as a gloomy, rain-soaked den of perfidy and ominous backroom collusion. For Gaghan, the city is a dark moon of low moral gravity cratered with increasingly difficult tests of integrity.
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