‘Syriana’ (2005)

Even though ‘Syriana’ is the thematic sequel to writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s Oscar-winning ‘Traffic’, I’d almost rather write about movie, David Lynch’s ‘Dune’.

‘Syriana’ and ‘Dune’ are connected by the matter of Oil. While Gaghan’s 2 hour+ film is concerned with the literal politics of oil, Herbert’s novel and the resulting Lynch movie are something of a roman à clef for an economic and political paradigm that hadn’t yet fully emerged in 1965.

‘Dune’ illustrates a world – a galaxy, actually – where a powerful empire has come to depend on a remote desert planet for it’s sole natural resource – Spice, an alchemical resource that allows human space-farers to navigate the stars. However, in this brave new world of interstellar travel, spice cannot be synthesized like someone’s wishful ethanol or biodiesel. Spice MUST come from the Sand-worms of Arrakis — no Sand-worms, no Spice and therefore and end to Empire.

In what seems to be an altogether choppy derivation, ‘Syriana’ revolves around a similar equation — Americans need Oil and Oil wells in the Continental United States all seem to have gone dry soimetime toward the latter 2/3rds of the last century, thus the United States has become increasingly dependent upon imported foreign oil. News of this shortage made itself manifest when a famously pious President, on James Earl Carter, Jr. of Georgia, a Democrat, held office and announced to the world that there was an emininent Oil crisis at hand. In return, he was cowed out of office and shamed as a coward and replaced by a divorced philanderer and former actor, one Ronald Wilson Reagan, who did nothing during his term to alleviate, what would become, in later years, a lychpin in the life of the American economy.

In ‘Dune’, 3 political factions struggle for control of both the planet and access to the Sandworms that produce the Spice: the Bene Gesserit religious order, the Feudal orders of Political aristocracy – the Families Harkonen, Atriedes, etc. – and the aboriginal Fremen, who only want to preserve their native tradions and way of life. ‘Syriana’ visits that same territory in with it’s corporatized American Oil Executives, American educated Royalty and illiterate and under-employed immigrant Palestinian workers, even as a Western-educated (played by Dr. Bashir) tries (and fails) to bring Democtatic reforms to a part of the world that still lives in the Bronze Age.

Gaghan’s ‘Traffic’ was essentially a remake of a 1989 television miniseries that was created for the BBC, ‘Traffik’. There, as the writer, Gaghan boiled-down 6 hours of television into a very dense 2 hour+ (3 hours on DVD) movie. What worked so well in the British version, was diminished in Gaghan’s script — the plight of the poor in drug-producing countries, and their lack of access to valuable jobs and education.

The politician’s life, plight and family exist in both versions of ‘Traffic/k’, however Catherine Zeta-Jones gets more sympthy in the American version in her depiction as a drug-trafficking soccer-mom. Lindsay Duncan, in the original, is a finagling harpie who seldom earns the audience’s sympathy. As an entertainment, Gaghan’s ‘Traffic’ is something of a pasteurization of the British original. What he has crafted in ‘Syriana’ is it’s sequel.

Mr. Gaghan seems almost singularly incapable of writing a timely story without putting some wealthy American family at risk.In ‘Traffic’ it was the family of Drug Czar Michael Douglas; in ‘Syriana’ it is the photogenic family of up-and-coming Financial Analyst Matt Damon. In both movies, ‘Traffic’ and ‘Syriana’, there are non-Yanqui lives at risk — the lives of unattached women and children on the ‘criminalized’ side of the illustrated conflict; but only the white people ever get any love, just as it was for last season’s event picture, ‘The Constant Gardener’. In the science-fiction departure, Dune’s Paul Atriedes ultimately goes native and joins the Arrakis Fremen in their battle against the colonizing Empire, ultimatlely finding a home and wife among the Fremen, as something like a postmodern ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

To the actors’ credit, George Clooney does a fabulous job of breaking his own matinee-idolatry and Damon is servicable. Jeffrey Wright is his usual excellent self, while it’s always nice to see Amanda Peet in something that’s not a RomCom or a dumb sitcom. The problem with this movie is its 5-act ‘structure’ and it’s dependence on Aaron Sorkin-like logic and the author’s over-ambitious assumption that the audience might be able to track all the players on our first viewing. Some of us may be smart Stephen, but ‘coy’ went out a long, long time ago.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare a want-to-be-gritty ‘realist’ film like ‘Syriana’ to ‘Dune’, however I find there’s more hope in the liberation theologies of Herbert and Lynch than the intractible ‘realpolitik espoused by Gaghan. Gaghan somehow believes that Soccer-Moms and cheap gasoline are an intractable entitlement, like Chevrolet and apple pie.

Cheap gasoline isn’t worth 3 hours of screen time.

Syriana Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Dune Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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