Peter M Howard ::


13Mar2006 [movies]

From the movie's opening scene, I knew this one was gonna be good. Beautiful camera work. Not far in and I was getting that spy-movie-thrill that I haven't had in a long time. Was sitting there thinking this is one of the best movies I've ever seen. Then about halfway through I suddenly realised the movie wasn't set when I thought it was and lost all the immersion. That was pretty jarring, and I wasn't able to get back into the film like I had been, but was still excellent enough that I could still say it was one of the best once it finished.

But that time-framing issue was really annoying. From all the talk before seeing the film, I wasn't entirely sure when the film was set, but was absolutely certain it was pre-911. The only event referred to that could've framed it was mention that the main character was in Beirut in 1985. I had assumed that the film was set either in the late-80s or early-90s (though sans war in the Gulf), or that it spanned that same period of time. I don't know why, but I believed it was entirely set pre-911, pre-Bush, pre-Gulf War II. Perhaps I was influenced by the mythos too, equating the film with stories like Spy Game -- the old/Cold War spy pulled out and unable to adapt to the modern world. The mid-east context is slightly different, but I assumed that, just as the spy game in Europe changed with the end of the Cold War, that the game had changed in the mid-east since the late 90s.

Now, when viewing a film about which one knows nothing, one should assume it is set in the 'present' (ie, this world) unless told otherwise, which is probably why the film didn't make it obvious that it was set in the present. But still, it took me nearly half the movie to get a time reference. I kind of laughed when hearing them talk of their optimism for Iran, and similarly when Matt Damon's character mentioned the Bin Ladens having fitted out Mecca with air conditioning; I assumed the references were for the audience only, those ones where we know something extra thanks to the benefit of hindsight. I did see what looked like an LCD television sitting in the kitchen of Jeffrey Wright's character, thought, that looks a little high-tech, maybe it's the mid-to-late 90s, but it can't be LCD. But it wasn't till around halfway through that someone referred to 9-1-1 and I had to rethink everything. Totally ruined the immersion, and I sat there for a while trying to reframe all the earlier political references in a contemporary context, and wondering what else was weird about the story-telling.

The fact that I could be so wrong about the time period points to a few interesting things though. First, mid-east politics can't have changed a lot in the last 15-20 years. Second, it's a pretty huge change that a movie can now be made set in a contemporary conflict-zone, using myths (ie, the spy game) that are usually reserved for hindsight. And third, for all its engaging with contemporary issues, was Syriana set in a bubble? There were absolutely no references to Iraq (I don't even recall the name being mentioned!) nor to Bush. The movie made no claims to historicity, but I still feel that fictional movies, particularly when they're set in the real world physically, should also be set temporally, and this movie would have worked perfectly if set in the 90s.

Even with the time-setting problem, this is an amazing movie. It looks absolutely beautiful, it's brilliantly acted, and it's a masterpiece of intelligent storytelling. It makes me want to rewatch it knowing that it's supposed to be set in the present, and I'll be curious to watch it again looking for signs of that bubble. It does deal with important issues, the politics of oil, of Islam, of democracy and reform in the Middle East. But if it is set in a bubble, I suspect it only pretends to deal with the real world.

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