Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Nothing is connected

George Clooney said he wants the new political thriller "Syriana" to test viewers. Well, while sitting through it I did flash back to high school, to a civics class taught by my wrestling coach.

Screenwriter and director Stephen Gaghan takes the same heavyhanded approach Mr. Dietrich did back then, and complicates matters by biting off much, much more than he can chew.

Using the same tactic he did successfully with "Traffic," Gaghan packs his script with multiple storylines and characters intended to interconnect and teach us something about how the U.S. government is conspiring with conglomerates to run the world. The main problem is that, although its poster boldly proclaims "Everything is connected," this fractured attempt at agenda filmmaking leaves us with a complicated mess.

Without giving too much away, I'll try to run down the many players and plots in "Syriana." George Clooney plays a CIA agent left out in the cold while on a mission to the Middle East, Matt Damon is a commodities "expert" who backs a reform-minded heir to the throne of an Arab country and Jeffrey Wright is an attorney charged with making sure the merger of two American oil companies passes muster with the Justice Department.

As if this isn't enough, along the way we get Damon struggling to save his marriage to Amanda Peet, Jeffrey Wright struggling to care for his alcoholic father, played by William Charles Mitchell, and an additional storyline about young Arabs who turn to radical Islam after struggling to find steady employment. Whew!

That's a lot of struggling to ingest, with no time left over for anything resembling character development. Why should we care for any of these people when we know next to nothing about them? Gaghan sorely misses director Steven Soderbergh, who added a human touch to "Traffic" that kept viewers engrossed as the story became more and more complicated.

Given my world view, I'm predisposed to like movies like this. I'm a nut for conspiracies, and I love agenda filmmaking as a genre.

For a nearly flawless example, check out this year's "The Constant Gardener," which this morning garnered a deserved Golden Globe nomination for best dramatic picture.

In that searing indictment of drug company practices, we get Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat who seeks answers after his wife mysteriously disappears in Africa. It tackles a complicated subject, but director Fernando Meirelles, director of the even better "City of God," always keeps Fiennes' plight front and center. As complicated plot twists pile up, you (well, I, at least) never get lost because there's a very human story to follow.

This is sorely lacking in "Syriana," relegating it to agitprop rather than entertainment. For a political movie out now, Telegraph entertainment writer Maggie Large reccomends "Good Night, and Good Luck," which she said is a great movie about journalism. I'll be checking it out this weekend, after I recover from KING KONG!

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