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"Syriana" is a blistering, powerful film about the degree to which
governments and corporate conglomerates place the ambition to control
the world's oil supply above the well being of their citizens and
employees. In this game, there are only bad guys, and what separates
the villains from the protagonists is not a question of who's good and
who's bad, but rather how bad each is willing to be.
So maybe "Syriana" doesn't tell us anything new. But that doesn't mean its points aren't worth making again and again. And though it is complicated, and I'm not going to pretend I followed every detail of its intricate plot, it's not *that* hard to follow. Stephen Gaghan is a good writer, and he provides a nice summary of the film's action in its final moments.
What emerges from this tangled puzzle is a web of corruption and self-interest, all fueled by the need for oil. In one plot thread, the men behind two soon-to-merge oil companies will stop at nothing to make the merger go through, since the new company will be one of the most powerful in the world. In another thread, the law firm representing the company proves that it's eager to cash in on the company's new economic success. Meanwhile, a power struggle between the two sons of an aging king in an unspecified Middle Eastern country (though Saudi Arabia is obviously suggested) has attracted the attention of the American government, operating through the CIA. America (read American business) has a vested interest in which of the king's sons succeeds him to the throne: It doesn't want the reform-minded eldest son, whose priorities will be building a country to benefit his own people; it wants instead the younger son, who will continue to relegate his country to a cosy spot in America's hip pocket and take its orders directly from the president of the USA. And in the film's most chilling plot strand, we see how the struggle for oil feeds the radical Islam movement in the Middle East, providing young men with a feeling of brotherhood and righteousness in the face of a region they feel has turned its back on them in favor of big business and Western corruption.
"Syriana" is tense, fast and furious. Following it can admittedly be somewhat exhausting, but if you pay very close attention to the first hour or so, as each story is introduced and the relationships between characters become clear, the second half of the movie is easier to digest.
I disagree with other comments here that the characters aren't developed or that the acting is unimpressive. On the contrary, I think all of the actors create extremely nuanced, compelling characters, a challenging task given the fact that none of them are allowed more than a minute or so at a time to feed us information about themselves. A movie like this could easily fall prey to filling itself with a bunch of stock villains, all cocked eyebrows and facial mannerisms rather than full-bodied characterizations, and the fact that it avoids this is a tribute to both Gaghan and the cast. And hats off to the editor on this movie, who had perhaps the most daunting task of the year.
2005 has been full of terse, important films, fresh in their immediacy. There have been a small number of sensational, tough, thought-provoking films instead of a larger batch of more mediocre ones, as has been the case recently. "Syriana" is one of the best movies of the year: it's angry, yet it's not hopeless. I hope Americans see this movie. At this time of year, when people are trampling each other in malls in order to be first in line for Christmas sales, I hope they remember that the vast wealth of America frequently comes at the sake of people all over the world who will never have a fraction of the comfort those in our country take for granted.
This is a great, complex movie. Its only faults are in the clarity of
character motivations. This is not a liberal or conservative film. It
is an exploration into the existing system that evolved over many
At no point in the movie does it take any pot-shots at Bush, Republicans, or Democracts. In fact, non of those words are ever spoken. It is not a left/right - red/blue debate. At no point in time does it ever mention the political parties of those in charge.
The fact is, be it a Republican or Democrat, this world depends on oil. Our country while split on how to obtain it, will do anything to make sure the flow is not cut off.
This movie finds faults with the global economy. Faults with the US system that has been tweaked by both sides over the span of decades. Faults with the Middle East for squandering its earnings. Faults with emerging China and its impact on consumption.
Anyone claiming this movie is politically motivated is a troll looking for attention and should be ignored.
I walked out of this movie feeling pretty depressed. As a historian, I always knew there have been forces at work in our society that act against the best interest of the average citizen. This film does an excellent job of illustrating just how politics and big business conspire to preserve the status quo which also protects their power and profits. The global interaction depicted in this film shows how all actions have consequences. The thirst our nation has for oil drives the kind of political and business policies that cause anger and hatred towards our nation. This oil addiction has led to an unjust war that was started on lies and disinformation. The result has been the deaths of over 2000 US servicemen and women, thousands more injured and tens of thousands Iraqi dead and wounded. This act has been the best tool Islamic terrorist groups have ever had in attracting followers and money to their cause. Those that attack this film obviously buy into the fantasy that America is involved in Iraq and the Middle East due to our sincere desire to spread "democracy." Anyone who is willing to have an open mind will find this film to be chilling for the implications of the storyline. This film is a must see for those who care about how the behavior of our government and big business impacts us in our everyday lives and how it will contribute to further terrorist attacks for decades to come. A well researched story with excellent actors for the numerous roles. I will buy this as soon as it comes out on DVD.
Stephen Gaghan penned Traffic, which was the best film of 2000. Now
with Syriana, he has developed a companion piece, with the oil industry
as the backdrop rather than the drug trade. The irony of this is that
the films show that both industries are corrupt to the core, but only
one is legal.
In fact, by the evidence of these two films, one could argue that the drug trade is the less sleazy of the two because it does not exist with the facade of legitimacy that surrounds the oil industry. If I was to make a list of the 10 best films of the decade so far, these would both be there.
It is tough, if not impossible and perhaps even foolish to try and apply one thesis to this film, but for me, it is that what we as civilians call corruption is simply the culture of the oil business, one supported and nurtured by government, business, traders and lawyers. No-one knows why it exists, but it does, and if you cannot wade in it, you are out of the game.
Syriana does not have a plot or a storyline, but it throws character and story and information at you by the bucketful. There is no warm up time. Gaghan goes out of his way to show that the people involved in this business are surrounded by a normal world with normal hopes and dreams. This is evident from the opening shot. A title card tells us we are in Tehran, but not a some stereotypical open market selling figs. It is a hip hop club.
The main story of the film involves a possibly corrupt merger of two major American oil firms. From there, everything else fans out. THe story of Jeffrey Wright, the government official investigating the merger, George Clooney, the CIA operative with missions with no apparent goal, the Arab Emir from an unnamed oil producing country, and his two sons each wanting to take over his reign, the industry analyst (Matt Damon) who will use any situation to advance his firm, and the young, broke angry Arab youth who look for meaning in life and find it in the most dangerous way.
Syriana is not a left wing movie, it is surprising a-political. It is not anti-American, but it most certainly lays blame on the US and the west for putting oil ahead of all other priorities. It is not sympathetic to terror, but its most compelling plot line tell us how a terrorist can be made from a bad combination of hopelessness, unemployment, anger and poverty.
If you are looking for a neat and tidy ending, you will be frustrated. The film ends like a truck running into a brick wall, with all but one or two plots left hanging. It does not answer any questions because I believe that Gaghan is trying to show that no-one is really in charge and that no-one really knows what is going on.
The acting is near perfect from everyone in the cast, including a small, two scene brilliant cameo by William Hurt and Oscar worthy work from Clooney and Alexander Siddig as the frustrated Arab prince.
This is an important film and it is not to be missed. **** out of ****.
I had the pleasure to view Syriana at an Academy screening and I must say that it is not for everyone. It is however a great film with an important message. Syriana is a thinker's political thriller and it will make you think. I'm glad to see someone like George Clooney trying to make important films again and Syriana is a very worthy effort. The performances are as good as it gets in any film and Chris Cooper is especially noteworthy with a powerhouse perf that will be hard to beat come Oscar time. Also worth mentioning is the great screenplay and direction by Stephen Gaghan. Syriana is not a film for those that want car chases, sex scenes, and huge explosions, but if you want a film that treats its audience as intelligent human beings, Syriana is for you.
Maddening and infuriating but also fascinating like most things we don't understand when we're told we should. I kept hearing people around me whispering - Who's that? - What are they talking about? - William Hurt!? I haven't shoosh people in a movie theater in years but I did throughout "Syriana". The most compelling aspect is that I felt let into something and hear things I shouldn't. They're all baddies one way or another but then, what else is new. Stephen Gaghan, the writer director, devices a devilish web for us to get lost into. I was mesmerized by his self assuredness and although I didn't have any kind of emotional connection with "Syriana" whoever she or it is, I couldn't dismiss the experience so, well done, cinema comes in all shapes and flavors.
The interesting novel by Robert Baer seems to tell it all about
"Syriana". It is a tale that is driven by the ambition of a few
unscrupulous people who will stop at nothing to achieve their goal. In
a way, Mr. Baer's novel as well as the film seems to be reaffirming
Niccolo Machiavelli's "The ends justify the means"
Stephen Gaghan's first major directorial job presents the story in multiple settings running at the same time, which, for a great majority of the public will prove disorienting. Mr. Gaghan has adapted for the screen material like the one in "Syriana" before, so he wasn't a stranger working in that format.
What "Syriana" presents is a sort of rat race for the control of the oil in the Persian Golf, by whatever means necessary. Ultimately, the ones in control of that commodity will dominate the world. We are given about five different narratives in the film that interplay one another in the most unexpected ways. In fact, all these different subplots have a lot more in common than really meets the eye. One could almost recommend the viewing of the film a couple of times in order for all the different parts to come together in our minds and by doing so, the viewer will see the inner mechanisms of this intricate tale of corruption, greed and power.
The cast is enormous. There are a lot of different acting styles in the film. An almost unrecognizable George Clooney plays Bob Barnes, the CIA operative fallen from grace who is instrumental in set the story in motion and who reappears at the end at the climax of the action. Jeffrey Wright does a tremendous job as the lawyer who discovers the hidden mystery in a performance that is completely different from whatever he has done before in the screen. Matt Damon plays the ambitious young man who is at the top of his profession and can help Prince Nasir with his revolutionary views about changes in his country and the Arab world. Ultimately, Wasim, the poor Pakistani guest worker makes the case for the displaced youth of that world that is willing to go ahead and commit the ultimate sacrifice.
There are also good appearances by some seasoned actors that only appear shortly. Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Cooper, Jayne Atkinson, Akbar Kurtha, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Robert Foxworth and the rest are seen briefly.
Robert Elswit photographed the film in the different locations and makes it look better. The music score by Alexandre Desplat is heard in the background without interrupting the action. The editing by Tim Squires works well with the action. Stephen Gaghan shows he can do well working with Mr. Baer's material and made an interesting film that while it will irritate some viewers, on the whole he had the right idea in the way to tell this story.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a complex film that tries to get the audience to connect the
dots --to see that control of the Middle Eastern oil fields is the goal
that is at the heart of so much of the political process, both in the
Middle East and in the West, and that it is also the catalyst for much
of what we call terrorism.
To accomplish its goal, the film introduces a number of characters and a number of seemingly separate story lines in the beginning, then tries to weave them all together by the end. That makes for a challenging first hour or so, in which the film jumps back and forth from one storyline to another. It can be confusing, but not too confusing if you pay close attention.
And it does weave them together in the last half hour, so the pay off is there. But the conclusion it reaches is not a happy one for many Americans, for what the movie seems to say is American oil companies use any means necessary, including double crosses and outright murder, to protect their access to Middle Eastern oil.
Well enough, for the political message. But does it work as a movie? The answer, in my view, is yes, but its a qualified yes.
The plot centers around the merger of two American oil companies, one a industry giant, which has just lost a big contract in Saudi Arabia to the Chinese, the other a small, independent Texas outfit, that has just won a lucrative contract in a smaller Mideast nation and is now going to be very cash rich. But there's a hitch. Did the Texas outfit bribe foreign officials, violating the US Corrupt Practices act. Fearing a Justice Department investigation that could block the merger, it hires a high priced Washington law firm to conduct its own investigation, to see what Justice might dig up against it.
At the same time, the Emir of a Persian Gulf oil kingdom is about to retire to Europe and has to pick between two sons to succeed him. One is a pool shooting playboy, the other a serious, reform minded idealist. Problem is, the idealist might not be so anxious to allow US troops to continue to garrison on his soil, while his fun loving brother wants nothing more than to have the Americans there to protect his privileged lifestyle from Islamic radicals. And as all this unfolds, a young Palestinian refugee, thrown out of work by a shift in control of the oil fields, is recruited by al-Qaida or something like it, and becomes involved in a terrorist bombing plot, using a weapon originally delivered by a CIA covert op to the Middle East.
But where the movie falls down is that it fails in someways to weave a human story into this and human stories, after all, are what the movies are all about. George Clooney does a fine job as a sort of world weary CIA agent caught up in the skullduggery. Although not particularly introspective, he does on occasion give you the impression that he's trying to figure out if he works for the US government or the Houston Petroleum Club. Matt Damen plays an oil industry analyst who is an adviser to the idealist candidate for emir and he is given the task of adding the human element to the story, after his young son drowns in a swimming pool. Unfortunately, Damon falls completely flat, registering almost zero emotion in his role as an exasperated advocate of democracy and reform or even as grieving dad. The talented Amande Peet ties her best as his wife, but gets little screen time and also delivers a weak performance.
And these only partially successful performances and outright failures are where "Syriana" fails --as a film. What "Syriana" lacks is a clear cut central character whose fate is linked to the complex story lines. Clooney's character is as close as we get, and he does not get enough screen time to really get us involved with him and the moral questions he faces. He at one point is directly involved in an assassination plot, then tries to stop it. The lead up to that is the most suspenseful of the film, but Clooney's out of nowhere insertion in the payoff scene is the movie's weakest moment, as if the filmmakers had to recast his character as a born again good guy, despite the silliness of his actions.
In the end, movies rise and fall, not by their political message, but by how their central characters grab us. "The Grapes of Wrath," one of Hollywood's greatest political films, works in the end because the complex, multi-character story is really the story of Tom Joad and Henry Fonda's portrayal of this character will forever haunt us.
That simply doesn't happen in "Syriana." While we might feel for George Clooney's character, he is not one who we can fall in love with. Clooney's C-I-A agent comes off as a tool, discarded by his handlers when he is no longer useful. But the fact that he did not see until the end that he was working, not for his country, but for big oil, makes him a kind of sad dupe and that does not a movie hero make. Actually, had he gotten more screen time, he might well have been a more sympathetic character. But that would have given us less time to ponder the role of the oil companies in all this.
Syriana, starring Matt Damon and George Clooney, reveals a possible
honesty in foreign political corruption. The movie starts out a bit
discombobulating, but the ending unleashes a truism in our society.
Directed and written by Stephen Gaghan (Screenplay for Traffic 2000),
the script for Syriana shows not only a smart liberal-approached
storyline, but also how much the American and Arabian lives becomes
juxtaposed by oil politics. Based on the non-fiction book "See No Evil"
by Robert Baer, Syriana takes its viewer step by step through the birth
and processes of terrorism; and tears at the roots from where all
violence and corruption derives.
The movie starts with the introduction of a character, Bob (George Clooney), an American CIA agent who works in the Middle East for years witnessing the destruction of social injustice. The movie then turns light to the American governmental affairs and its due process to make oil business proposals and governmental decisions to promote oil driven businesses in the Middle East. Bryan (Matt Damon) struggling to survive in America's capitalistic society thrives to introduce business opportunities in the Middle East; but before completing any deals with reformer and leader, Prince Nasir, all the characters, including a young Arabic man suffering from American politics and social injustices, end up experiencing sacrifices beyond comprehensible.
The movie leaves its audience stunned with a raw realism that the world we live is not a pretty picture, and all the beliefs you trust can be questionable. Although the movie definitely wouldn't exactly be a "feel good movie", its thought provoking and enlightening, and I don't think it was ever meant to be a "feel good movie." The movie shows a perspective worth learning, considering and understanding. And although the movie takes the viewer through a roller-coaster of different lives and people objectives at the beginning of the film, the movie ties in brilliantly to connect not only the characters lives, but the lives of the audience and everyone's lives who have capitalistic motives.
In "Syriana," writer/director Stephen Gaghan uses the busy style of
"Crash" and "Amores Perros" to illustrate the complex geopolitics
behind oil. Each sector--regulators, "intelligence", lobbyists,
grease-the-wheel-ers and cogs-in-the-wheel-ers, in the network of
greed, idealism, self-interest, sophistication and naiveté, is
represented by a different character followed through the movie to
bring them together, directly or indirectly, into the climax.
This technique to coordinate a huge ensemble of captivating character actors woven tightly together in a complex story is helped enormously by Robert Elswit's ever-moving camera shots as visually and sound edited by Tim Squyres, who had some experience with overlapping dialog and movement in a more literal upstairs/downstairs on Robert Altman's "Gosford Park." Alexandre Desplat's music adds to the tense mood.
The variegation that Gaghan presents is almost staggering, even more ethically complicated than a Graham Greene Cold War noir. This is the first film I've seen that illustrates the diversity of clashing Islamic cultures and interests, despite that I couldn't keep their interests or motives all quite straight. Though the English subtitles (which are commendably outlined in black for unusual legibility) wipe out some of the distinctions, we can infer that Iranians are speaking Farsi, Pakistanis' Urdu and others speaking Arabic, all with varying fluency and mutual cultural comprehension, let alone manipulators who can speak anything besides their native tongues. We've seen immigrants and guest workers in films critical of Western countries, but not the resentment-brewing conditions of badly treated non-citizens in the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, like the fictional one here which looks a lot like Dubai or Brunei, where clusters of modern skyscrapers contrast with Bedouin goat herders. It does help for background on the fascinating side plot of the radicalized young Arabs to see "Paradise Now" about Palestinian terrorists to explain particular details of their training.
While each character is specifically set within a believable home and family setting, some are painted with too easy and broad strokes. While Alexander Siddig seems to have the monopoly on naively idealistic Arabs, as his similar character in "Kingdom of Heaven" against another Crusades, history is littered with the interim, modernizing liberal tragically caught between powerful forces. (Though the proliferation of Western-educated Arab intellectuals in movies is beginning to sound like all those Japanese generals in World War II movies who went to USC or whatever; at least he went to Oxford and not Harvard.)
Matt Damon's un-Bourne-like energy analyst just sounds simplistic even when he's truth-telling, but we also see that he's already slid down the slippery slope of ethics in the crossing of his personal and professional lives. That so many of the oil and gas executives have Texas accents (superb Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Foxworth) does seem to say that the decades of business and political corruption there, as documented in Robert Caro's biography of LBJ, have simply been extended to a global scale.
The film is also unusual in focusing on the role of lawyers negotiating the deals between companies and governments. While Christopher Plummer's Ivy League senior partner type has been seen as a shadowy force in countless paranoid thrillers, Jeffrey Wright is completely unpredictable and tightly wound, though the point of his relationship with his cynical alcoholic father isn't exactly clear except maybe as his conscience. We see before our eyes he goes from, as his mentor says, "a sheep into a lion."
Most films have prosecutors like David Clennon's U.S. attorney as a hero against corruption, instead of being chillingly dismissed as "trust fund lawyers." But the script is so full of such epigrams, like "In this town, you're only innocent until you're investigated," that one character calls another on issuing them too brightly.
While from the beginning I couldn't quite follow all the machinations around George Clooney's character, he is wonderful at transforming from his usual Cary Grant suave to harried, dedicated, mid-level bureaucrat who literally won't toe the Company line in a dangerous hierarchy that's shown to be a bit more competent than in real life, that reminded me both in the gut and guts of Russell Crowe's Wigand in the tobacco wars in "The Insider." It recalls how benign corrupt spooks looked in their personal lives, as there's much conversation here about houses, cars and college tuition. Indirectly, the film implicitly shows the dangers to Valerie Plame from her outing as a CIA operative, as families and personal connections are constantly used as threats and bargaining chips.
Significantly, there is not a single mention amidst all these Mideast chicaneries, plots and plans of the Zionist entity, proving that pro or anti-Israel policies are smoke screens around the main draw -- oil.
Movie-wise, these characters seem a lot like the gangsters and their conseglieres in "The Godfather" carving up Cuba and drug rights, let alone Gordon Gekko extolling "Greed is good" as the ultimate ideology, and fits right in with this year's other geo-political thrillers "The Constant Gardener" and "Lord of War," and those weren't even about natural resources. It works better than the re-make of "The Manchurian Candidate" because even though the focal point is a fictional country the issues are real, not science fiction.
So does this make you ready to get out of your car and onto the train? Because until then, we'll still need lots of that oil from the Middle East.
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