Months after it opened, a friend of mine and I were talking about Traffic – Steven Soderbergh’s film about the international drug trade, scripted by Stephen Gaghan and based on a prior BBC mini-series – and my friend offered how, to him, the film’s acclaim and controversy felt overdone. He didn’t feel Traffic said anything interesting or shocking or revelatory; it didn’t tell him anything he didn’t know already. I couldn’t challenge his personal taste – always a near-impossible thing to do – but I did observe how the film may not have been revelatory or groundbreaking to him because he went to frickin’ Dartmouth and has never spent a night in jail, known a moment of want or lived in enough pain that drugs would be the only possible way to feel better. His past – and his privilege – meant he lived in a world that is wildly different from the world most people live in; they also meant he probably had no way of perceiving his past or privilege, much as I doubt fish have a word for water.
I was reminded of my friend’s reaction to Traffic after Syriana, a similarly broad and ambitious film scripted – and, this time out, directed – by Stephen Gaghan. My friend’s detached words didn’t echo in my memory; they were spoken out loud by some of my fellow reviewers: “ ... Not that engaging … ” “… No real plot or through-line … ” and, yes, “ ... It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.” More often than not, the biggest enemies of engaged, political art are not on the far-Right; often, they’re on the near-Left. Most film writers operate out of a narrow comfort zone, thinking about a film only in the context of the thousands of films they’ve seen before and not in the context of the people who will actually pay to see it and the world they live in. The audience may not be as informed on current events as some of the people reviewing films, but they are also probably not as bored, blasé and bland about the ideas in the film as the seen-it-all scribblers picking at it with a thousand tiny knives. (And I too am guilty of the same, a thousand times over.)
I personally enjoyed Syriana as a film – it’s well-shot, well-acted, intellectually and emotionally involving and as confusing, complicated and irrational as the real world it captures. I also can’t think of a movie this year that had as much to say and was, at the same time, made with such a sense of art. Lots of people are going to find Syriana wanting because they’ll be seeing it purely through the lens of other films. Watch Syriana through the lens of the world, as a work of journalistic political fiction, and it’s fascinating, involving and thrilling. Or, more bluntly: Don’t think of Syriana’s swirling mix of plot lines and people chasing an ever-dwindling supply of oil as a semi-sequel to Traffic. Think of it as a partial prequel to Mad Max.