In Munich, editor Michael Kahn sets a deliberate pace that ticks with the precision of a Swiss movement. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s imagery, supported by Rick Carter’s production design and the costuming by Joanna Johnston has a flat, neutral quality that implies objectivity and the cold, clinical approach of cinema verite documentary.Syriana looks like something off of an evening newscast with cinematographer Robert Elswit affecting the erratic, overlit quality of breaking events. It’s that immediacy that glues us to the screen along with characters of all persuasions that represent true believers across the political spectrum. Unlike Munich, its locations are distinctive in capturing the texture of such wide-ranging whistle stops as Texas, Beirut, the fictional emirate and Washington, D.C., with close attention paid to the sounds unique to the locales.“If you want to send a message, call Western Union” – Sam GoldwynMovies are a subtle influence on our lives and attitudes. It’s difficult to think of a single film that’s altered the course of history, though some might cite Leni Riefenstahl’s potent paean of Nazi propaganda The Triumph of the Will as a singular example. Nonetheless the more immediate impact of film has been in less incendiary areas such as fashion, whereas their influence on the way we relate to race and culture tends to evolve at a more languid pace. The extreme representation of archenemies the movies presented during World War II merely underlined existing attitudes. In contrast, decades of westerns reinforced a shameful picture of Native Americans as savage, ungodly and primitive.The depiction of Arabs hasn’t been much better in American movies. At best they have been presented as exotic but the scales have largely tipped toward a malevolent alien presence as destructive as any science-fiction invader. Redressing stereotype is certainly a key aspect of both Munich and Syriana. While neither film features an Arab protagonist, each strives to humanize and situate the politics of the Middle East and, if not wholly successful, attains at least a standard of political correctness.Munich harks back to the 1972 kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games by the PLO splinter group Black September. The incident itself is merely the jumping off point for the film which follows a covert mission by the Israeli government to assassinate a list of people presumed to be involved in the massacre. It is primarily a thriller in which a team of five men goes about its dirty business with precision and resolve. Secondarily it grapples with the thorny question of justice and the emotional toll murder has on one’s psyche.There’s a didactic quality that infuses not only the film’s content but also its style. It echoes films of the era it depicts—most strikingly The Day of the Jackel— and underlines the connection with the casting of Michael Lonsdale, the Jackel’s pursuer, in the role of a morally pragmatic information broker. Efficiency as opposed to kinetic drive is the hallmark of Munich. It stands in sharp contrast to the sort of cinematic bravura we’ve come to associate with director Steven Spielberg. Editor Michael Kahn sets a deliberate pace that ticks with the precision of a Swiss movement. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s, ASC, imagery, supported by Rick Carter’s production design and the costuming by Joanna Johnston has a flat, neutral quality that implies objectivity and the cold, clinical approach of cinema verite documentary. As the assignments plod through Europe and the Middle East, the venues seem unnecessarily homogeneous, apart from some perforce landmark. It’s an imposition that chafes badly with those moments, albeit rare, where attitude and emotion come to the fore.The film sends a series of mixed messages that largely confuse rather than inform the ambiguity of personal and institutional politics. While its bias skews toward the Israelis, the most clearly defined characters are the French clan that trades in arms and intelligence and whose credo is that the only things that matter are money and family. It’s appropriate that they are the instruments for the Israeli team sharing a safe house with a Palestinian hit squad and it’s simply cool heads and a covert cover that prevents the situation from spilling blood. The opportunity for the two factions to communicate peeks through all too briefly but the fleeting glimpse suggests the emotional potency engrained in the material that’s largely been squandered.The issue of conflicted morality evolves far too late in the narrative and its conclusion is simplistic and unsatisfying. One appreciates that it eschews the Death Wish mentality that righteous vengeance has no consequence, but again its aftermath is noted rather than plumbed. Ambiguity or at least the difficulty inherent in navigating the complex social, political and cultural relationships of a region, is central to Syriana. Its very title (never uttered in the film) refers to a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East that’s been somewhat embraced by neo-conservatives.Employing a structure akin to Traffic, writer-director Stephen Gaghan pushes the story along via three unrelated protagonists. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an American resources analyst based in Geneva whose work with an oil-rich emirate spills over into the political arena. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is a corporate lawyer assigned to do due diligence on the acquisition of a regional U.S. energy firm and Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a CIA operative with extensive experience and contacts in the region who begins to realize he’s being manipulated for less than altruist purposes. Barnes emerges as the soul of the piece along with a secondary plot thread involving unemployed Muslim workers recruited into a suicide mission.The skeleton of the story is a labyrinth journey with a vague destination. It’s a precarious odyssey with seemingly unconnected strands and Gaghan strives to keep our attention to the nuance even as the story appears impenetrable or begins to meander down a dead end. Visually it looks like something off an evening newscast with cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC, affecting the erratic, overlit quality of breaking events. It’s that immediacy that glues us to the screen along with characters of all persuasions who represent true believers across the political spectrum.Still it emerges as more variegated travelogue than compelling drama. Unlike Munich, its locations are distinctive in capturing the texture of such wide-ranging whistle stops as Texas, Beirut, the fictional emirate and Washington, D.C., with close attention paid to the sounds unique to the locales. It does not however bind the myriad elements together dramatically. One’s forced to make leaps and fill in gaping holes in order to connect the story components, and even for someone with more than passing knowledge of geopolitical machinations Syriana is daunting to grasp.Several observers of the film have suggested that a longer version is in order. It’s more likely that an extended cut would intensify the confusion. It is after all a study of ambiguity, and wrestling with the balance between what one reveals and withholds is crucial and, in this instance, just a tad too heavy on the mystery.
Written by Len Klady