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What the hell is happening? (l-r) Clooney and Hurt in Syriana.

The Evil That Men Do
By Shawn Stone

Syriana

Directed by Stephen Gaghan

It’s as lovely a bit of misdirection as anything that happens in the picture. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan, who based Syriana partly on ex-CIA agent Robert Baer’s memoir See No Evil, has said that there are “no good guys and no bad guys” in the narrative, and further argued that the stories “don’t wrap up in neat little life lessons.” Au contraire—there are, and they do.

But more about that in a minute.

Syriana offers an amazingly complex narrative for a Hollywood-produced film. With 20-odd notable characters and multiple, interlocking storylines, the story makes Gaghan’s earlier screenplay for Traffic seem a model of simplicity. As the cryptic title suggests—Syriana delightfully evokes the twisted poetry of 20th-century Euro-colonialism—the story is about the Middle East. Or, at least, the Middle East that’s relevant to the West: a land of impossibly rich sheiks, shadowy business and government operatives, manipulative clerics, powerful Americans, misguided suicide bombers and . . . oil. Lots and lots of oil.

There are, more or less, four separate-but-interconnected stories. The first is about world-weary CIA agent Bob (George Clooney). Too old for field work, but too impolitic for a Washington desk job, he is sent by his distinctly unsympathetic superiors on one final mission to Lebanon, site of Bob’s most notable (but unexplained) career success two decades previous. Then, there is the Byzantine, not-quite-kosher oil merger between two giant corporations, and the law firm (led by a wily Christopher Plummer) that’s deployed a team of lawyers (led by a frighteningly reticent Jeffrey Wright) to make the merger happen with a minimum of collateral damage. Finally, there is the ambitious but peculiarly virtuous American energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) and his attempts to help a reform-minded Gulf prince (Alexander Siddig) break free of the corrupt past and build an open, democratic future for his kingdom. Finally, there are the Pakistani guest workers whose presence in the Persian Gulf is tolerated but not welcomed. They’re the pawns in this game.

The ensemble acting is superb. Producer Clooney’s ability to attract amazing talent for even the smallest role adds to the picture’s dramatic verisimilitude: Notably, there is Jamey Sheridan as a hear-no-evil CIA chief; Viola Davis as a glowering, see-no-evil national security type; Tim Blake Nelson as an intellectual oil-man/hick, the closest thing the film has to the voice of Satan; and William Hurt as an ex-agent who knew when to get out. The main characters all compel, too, from Clooney’s bleary but still-eager spook and Damon’s boy-scout capitalist to Siddig’s impassioned but regally haughty prince and Chris Cooper’s laser-focused oil executive. Given the disjointed narrative, the importance of the acting can’t be understated.

Gaghan and company do such a fine job of misdirection, with fragmentary, Altmanesque dialogue and cagey intercutting between the various characters, that it’s easy to focus on the trees until you’re lost—deeply lost—in the forest. However, as you can guess from the brief synopsis, there are good guys and bad guys in Syriana. CIA administrators? Bad. CIA agents? Good. Oil companies? Bad. Reformers? Good. Lawyers? Pure evil. (Naturally.) Not to give anything away, once you grasp the filmmakers’ deeply pessimistic view of the situation, the only resolution for each of the stories is obvious.

World of Wonder

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Directed by Andrew Adamson

Midway through The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a nymph materializes out of whirling flower petals like a split-second glimpse of spring.

Never mind the Catholic symbolism (though it’s in there); and you can forget about the sword-wielding influence of J.R.R. Tolkien (more delightfully, that’s noticeable, too). The live-action adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ beloved novel is a visual triumph that succeeds at bringing the fairyland of Narnia to the screen, and in so doing, trumps the awkward allegories of its narrative. Though the king will die on a sacrificial altar, it’s the film’s bewitching setting (a mysterious woodland with craggy peaks on the horizon) and its willful beasties that generate a sense of enchantment.

Directed by Andrew Adamson with an emphatic understanding of children’s stories (as expected from the director of Shrek), Narnia is a gentle epic that offers almost everything a child could want in an adventure story, and also gives grown-ups a chance to reexperience their own childhood fantasies. Astonishingly animated with digital effects, the creatures—some of them mythological, such as a squadron of griffins—satisfy that common childhood desire talk to animals, as well as to become the hero and ruler of a wild and wooly realm of one’s own.

As does the book, the film opens during World War II with the evacuation of the four Pevensie kids to the English countryside. Paternal Peter (William Moseley), prim Susan (Anna Popplewell), sulky Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and young Lucy (Georgie Henley) are sent to reside with a reclusive professor (Jim Broadbent). With deft economy, Adamson sketches the relationships between the siblings, who are affected, in differing ways, by apprehension and homesickness. Meanwhile, the marvelous art direction uses the professor’s ancient manor house to evoke the Victorian passion for all things medieval, setting the stage for a chivalric alternate universe. It’s Lucy who discovers Narnia: While hiding in a wardrobe, she falls out the back into a winter wonderland, where she takes tea with a timid faun (James McIvor). Her tale is regarded with pitying disbelief by her older siblings, but gradually, her brothers and sister will also learn to believe in the unbelievable.

But first, Edmund has a fateful run-in with the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), the fearsome Queen of Narnia. In the film’s strongest performance, Swinton is both alluring and forbidding (though dressed, in the production’s only misstep, in what looks to be a molded mattress). With her ice-sculpture features, Swinton is stunning as an ice queen, but what’s surprising is how ferocious, even frightening, she is when the Witch transforms into a Boudicca-like warrior for the climactic battle. For no sooner have Peter and Susan gotten their bearings—courtesy of a couple of dauntless, Cockney-accented beavers—than they are enlisted in the war for Narnia. The forces of good are assembling under the banner of the lion king Aslan to liberate the land from the cruel reign of the Witch.

Though voiced with enormous dignity and authority by Liam Neeson, Aslan is the film’s weakest element (as he is in the book). A Christlike figure who can also be viewed as the “lionheart” of wartime England, Aslan does not have a graspable worldview to express, unlike, say, Gandalf (mercy) or Dumbledore (patience). Aslan does exhort the hesitant Peter to slay a foe. But aside from this one queasily Crusader-like moment, Adamson is to be admired for his skillful discretion: The crucial sacrifice scene—“the deep magic” of Narnia—plays more like an eerie pagan ritual than a child-oriented version of the Crucifixion. He also skirts the more violent aspects of the battle scenes with little loss of suspense or excitement (even fantasy-averse adults may find themselves at the edge of their seats).

For those who relish symbolism, there are biblical and literary allusions to be espied throughout, along with such imaginatively out-of-the-blue sequences as the appearance of Father Christmas (a memorable James Cosmos). The film’s visual energy, especially a tense skirmish on a melting ice flow, make up for occasional moments of stiffness, most of which occur around Peter’s less-than-compelling rise to leadership. It’s with Lucy that the story really shines (Henley is a natural): Her unquestioning embrace of all that is Narnia gives the film a dusting of real magic.

—Ann Morrow


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