What the hell is happening? (l-r) Clooney
and Hurt in Syriana.
Evil That Men Do
by Stephen Gaghan
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.
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.
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
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
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.