A film that leaves the rest for dead

AT TIMES one encounters a work of art so finely crafted, a work that leaves one so satisfied, that thereafter one cannot view anything of the same genre and experience a similar sense of satisfaction.

The film Syriana is one such work which transcends practically every superlative and leaves one wondering when, or indeed whether, any filmmaker will ever come close to such a masterful effort.

Syriana (original script here) was made in 2005 by Stephen Gaghan who spent four years researching before he created this epic. And it shows.

The film brings together a number of stories:

  • that of a CIA veteran who is returning to the US and finds himself sent out on a mission that turns sour and results in the agency turning its back on him;
  • that of a lawyer who is trying to smooth out a merger between two oil companies and finds himself in possession of information that could end up being political dynamite;
  • that of a religious group in the Middle East who are looking for candidates to serve as suicide bombers;
  • that of a couple of Pakistani expats who lose their jobs because of the merger of the aforementioned oil firms and become prime recruitment material for Islamic terrorism;
  • that of an oil industry consultant who ends up as economic adviser to a sheikh who expects to become leader of a small Gulf country only to find his brother installed as leader instead because of American presssure;
  • and that of the aforementioned sheikh and his efforts to go against the grain and how they end in tragedy.

Despite being a film about people and situations from the East and West, despite including dialogue in five languages, despite drawing half-a-dozen story threads into a coherent whole, the film never, just never, gets boring or descends into stereotypes.

I have never seen a film which shows that the director has so completely understood the psyche of people from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, the Western world, and all their attendant cultures that he never puts a foot wrong. Directors often get things 95 percent right and that is deemed acceptable; Gaghan gets it 100 percent right all the time.

The film resonated with me because I could comprehend it on different levels: as someone who has grown up on the Indian subcontinent, as one who now lives in a Western country, and as one who has spent a considerable amount of time in the Middle East.

The editing is so finely tuned that one scene begins almost before the other ends. The dialogue is taut and loaded with meaning; one has to see the film at least twice before all the little nuances of the excellent screenplay can be grasped.

If truth be told, one can’t praise this film too much. All of the above is just understatement. One has to see the film to begin to comprehend exactly why it is a statement of the times, a mirror to society and an apt illustration of the fact that in the inter-connected world we live in, an act somewhere far away can have unintended repercussions in our own backyard.

There is a range of emotions at play right through the film; there are moments of exhilaration when it looks like good will triumph, there are others when depression is the order of the day. The music is classy right through, every language spoken (English, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and French are all used at various times) is translated correctly, with respect to both word and idiom.

Overall, there is a lesson for us all in the film: life cannot go on as it has, with the haves continuing to accumulate wealth while the have-nots continue to struggle for the bare necessities.

And the film also teaches us that the West cannot keep interfering in countries far beyond its borders to maintain its economic superiority, without facing a terrible backlash. Some part of that backlash arrived on September 11, 2001; Syriana sounds a grim warning that there may be more to come.

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