Boy, did this movie make me feel stupid. It is not just that 'Syriana' has a dense narrative and a convoluted plot. Nor that its story is culled from current events, which requires that you have at least some knowledge of the real-life historical background that inspired the film to make any sense of it. No, 'Syriana' made me feel so stupid because it is perhaps the first mainstream-geared, major studio-distributed political thriller since the genre's heyday in the '70s that demands your constant attention and intellectual engagement. Every character, every line of dialogue, even moment of every scene is the purposeful building block of a larger foundation -- and if you look away or cover your ears for even a few seconds, it will quickly come tumbling down. And in this day and age of movies that are made for short attention spans and are about as mentally demanding as burning toast, that is a tough request indeed.
Unfolding against the backdrop of the global oil industry, 'Syriana' tells three stories simultaneously, through three very different men, across multiple continents, all illuminating the human consequences of our culture's fierce pursuit of wealth and power. There is a career CIA operative (George Clooney) who begins to uncover the disturbing truth about the country he has devoted his life to; an up-and-coming oil broker (Matt Damon) who, after a family tragedy, seeks redemption in his partnership with an idealistic Gulf prince (Alexander Siddig); and a corporate lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) who must straddle a very thin moral line as he closes a questionable merger between two powerful U.S. oil companies. Each story functions as both a microcosm of its own as well as only a small part in a much more vast and complex universe, and each man remains unaware of the explosive impact their lives can have on the world's oil industry.
If there is any film of recent years that 'Syriana' is most easily compared to, it's 'Traffic.' Both were written by Stephan Gaghen, and each tells a sprawling, politically-charged story based on timely events via a narrative of interlocking stories. They also share a similar, gritty visual style. And both were made with the involvement of Oscar-winning 'Traffic' helmer Steven Soderbergh, who here executive produced (Gaghen took over the directorial reins). But where the similarities between the two films end is that while 'Traffic' also tackled a hot-button social issue (the drug war), 'Syriana' is even more overtly political and far less accessible. 'Traffic,' for all its intelligence and passion, still felt commercial, telling an emotional story with recognizable protagonists, which offered plenty of entry points for mainstream audiences. We could all find at least one character to identify and empathize with, which never left the film feeling didactic or cold.
Unfortunately, for me, I ultimately found 'Syriana' admirable but a bit remote. Granted, I'll admit I didn't understand everything that was going on. Even reading up a bit on current events before I watched the film, I sometimes felt concise character and story were being sacrificed by the need to drive home a political point. The film might have connected more directly to heart as well as the mind if its politics were left to flow a bit more subtly out of its characters' motivations. I also thought some of the casting was a bit distracting -- perhaps I'm being unfair, but even after packing on a few extra pounds (as well as snagging an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor) George Clooney is just too damn much of a movie star to really disappear into a fictional (or, rather a composite) character. And with such a huge ensemble cast, including Matt Damon and Amanda Peet, 'Syriana' suffers a bit from the dreaded "Will & Grace" disease, where each week's guest stars began to upstage the stories.
Still, I am truly glad films like 'Syriana' are being made again. Last week, I watched a double header of 'Network' and 'All the President's Men' on DVD, and was astounded at how they pulled no punches in satirizing not only modern culture but our shared American apathy towards sociopolitical concerns. That kind of hard-edged, idealistic filmmaking has simply disappeared over the past two decades, and though 'Syriana' did not make nearly as much money at the box office as 'Traffic,' it did turn a profit. So I can only hope that those films, along with the limited success of Clooney's 'Good Night, and Good Luck,' might be a portent of a new wave of political filmmaking. Because even if I didn't always know what was going on in 'Syriana' (if any film demands a second viewing, it's this one), I was never less than stimulated and challenged by its ideas and passion. And what was the last movie you could say that about?
Presented here in 2.40:1 widescreen and encoded in 1080p, this transfer may not appear at first glance to look particularly good. Because 'Syriana' is a film that is intentionally quite stylized, with a grainy and gritty texture -- call it purposefully imperfect. So it is to the great credit of this transfer that it accurately represents the film's theatrical presentation, warts and all.
It is hard to critique the quality of the print when you're dealing with a film that varies as wildly in tone, lighting style and consistency as this. Film grain is readily apparent throughout, sometimes extremely so during darkly-lit sequences. Contrast is often overcooked to the point where whites bloom, giving the film a very you-are-there feel more akin to a documentary than a glossy Hollywood blockbuster. Colors are also often severely tweaked, with some hues overpumped while others are desaturated. Unfortunately, all these stylistic flourishes do hamper detail -- the image is not all that three-dimensional for most of its runtime, however appropriate the result is to the subject matter. However, for a film this jumpy and cutty, I remain impressed at the lack of any apparent pixelization or macroblocking artifacts. This transfer is rock solid, so kudos to Warner's production team for making 'Syriana' look about as good as it ever could.
Presented as usual in Dolby Digital-Plus, 'Syriana's soundtrack is as problematic as its visual presentation. Not to say it is bad, but it sure is uneven. While the general quality of the mix here is very good -- wide dynamic range, with a spacious sense of depth across the complete frequency spectrum -- low-end to high. Oddly however, select sound effects sound flat, even phony. I detected a few moments (such as the random gunshot or explosion) that sounded canned, almost at the quality you expect during a local news broadcast. Perhaps this is intentional -- it certainly gives 'Syriana' the appropriate "you are there" feel of a documentary. Same goes for the sense of envelopment to the mix -- it is all over the place. A few scenes boast active surround engagement with some nice directionality to the effects, but most of the film is primarily dialogue-driven, and almost entirely front heavy. Again, this isn't really a criticism only an observation. In any case, this soundtrack seems to adequately convey the intent of the filmmakers.
Somewhat surprisingly for a film of such substance and controversy, there are few real supplements included. Though Warner has ported over all of the extras on the standard DVD release (plus some exclusive HD bonus content, but more on that below), that isn't saying much given the paucity of the material included here.
For some reason writer-director Stephen Gaghen didn't sit down to record an audio commentary (unless Warner is saving that for a future double dip?). Instead, all we get are two featurettes. The nine-minute "A Conversation with George Clooney" is just that, a typically witty and intelligent discussion with the famously liberal (and now Oscar-winning) actor. Recorded before his big awards windfall, it is a nice chat, though not nearly extensive enough given the complexity of the film. The second featurette is the 11-minute, eco-friendly "Make a Change, Make a Difference." Earnest and well-meaning, it nevertheless doesn't really delve into the making of the movie or its thematic intricacies in any meaningful way.
Also included are three deleted scenes running about 7 minutes. All are mostly dialogue bits, though they do include one character entirely cut from the finished film. Interesting, though not essential viewing.
Rounding out the slim package is the film's original theatrical trailer. All the supplements are presented in 480i or, in the case of the trailer, 480p.
'Syriana' is a tough, challenging film, the kind of political thriller they just don't make anymore. Some will certainly disagree with its viewpoints, and it can oftentimes feel like a sledgehammer of ideas, rather than an involving, emotionally engaging narrative. But I'm glad these kinds of films are starting to be made again. As an HD DVD release, its transfer is about as good as you could hope for with a film with such a grungy aesthetic, and we even get a couple of exclusive HD extras. Even if you don't pick this one up for a purchase, it's definitely worth a rental. Just make sure you bone up on your oil economics before you watch it.