Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is one of the most ambitious scripts to come out of Hollywood in a long time. His story strategy is a strange combination of showing the audience an extremely big picture while also placing them in extreme ignorance. He tells a very horizontal story, showing many elements and forces working at one time, but also puts the audience in the same position as a cop trying to figure out a crime.
Gaghan is clearly within the storytelling tradition of the last hundred years in which the viewer comes to understand over the course of the story. This approach reached its apex in such European films as Last Year at Marienbad and The Conformist. It makes the audience work hard, but the endpoint is supposed to be a deeper learning of the real patterns of the world.
Unfortunately, that never happens in Syriana. What comes together at the end is the idea that the powerful of the world conspire together to increase and perpetuate the powers that be. But we know that from the beginning. The specifics of what happens remain confusing and there is almost no emotional completion.
When you make the audience work this hard to figure out so many strands, and force them to sit in ignorance for almost the entire film, you had better have a fantastic plot revelation at the end. In effect, if you make them take their medicine, you have to give them a great treat for their effort. But we never get the treat. Gaghan might argue that he is purposely trying to cut against a big Hollywood finish, with everything tied up neatly. But giving the audience a great plot isn’t “going Hollywood.” It’s good writing.
Even if you accept this excuse for a flat plot payoff, Gaghan has to justify taking the medicine with something. With an intellectual, multi-strand movie like this, the payoff isn’t going to be emotional. It has to be a great thematic revelation. But this too is missing. We know from the beginning that big corporations run the world and get most of what they want. So learning that at the end is not learning anything.
Study this script carefully if you want to see the strengths and weaknesses of horizontal storytelling. Perhaps the biggest insight a writer can take from Syriana is: the more characters you track in a story, the harder it is to make an emotional impact on the audience.