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Syriana Movie Poster


Genre: Drama/Thriller
Rated: R
Directed by
: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, William Hurt, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer
Released by: Warner Bros.

In Short: Even though it’s tricky to navigate the mess of multiple storylines, “Syriana” has much merit, including an immaculate ensemble cast and a subject that couldn’t be timelier.

Oil Must Flow
A Merciless Look at the Machinations of the Oil Industry
By Sylvie Greil

"Syriana" is a difficult movie to recommend. Even people who have no trouble locating Pakistan on a map can easily get lost. It is not that the subject matter—the dark forces of the global oil industry—is difficult to understand. It’s that director Stephen Gaghan (Best Screenplay Academy Award for "Traffic") has chosen to edit the film in a hyperactive MTV style, jumping from scene to scene without ever lingering anywhere, creating a convoluted labyrinth of parallel plots.

Gaghan creates tension rather than suspense, asking everything of the viewer. You feel that if you were to blink you’d miss a crucial element necessary for piecing together a coherent idea of who’s who, who’s doing what and why. Even though it’s tricky to navigate the mess of multiple storylines, “Syriana” has much merit, including an immaculate ensemble cast and a subject that couldn’t be timelier. In the end the acute attention Gaghan demands does pay off, even though the message is bleak and utterly depressing.

A rudimentary understanding of the situation in the Middle East and American companies’ ties to oil will be helpful, as will a basic plot summary: There’s the story of CIA operative Bob Barnes—whose character is loosely based on the memoir, See No Evil, of a real-life CIA veteran, Robert Baer—who’s having a midlife crisis of sorts. It’s not clear whether Barnes (George Clooney) is disillusioned about having been used by the U.S. government for the past twenty years, or allowed this to happen with full knowledge. Jeffrey Wright plays an oppressed-seeming, ambitious lawyer investigating due course of a merger between two U.S. oil companies. Matt Damon’s Bryan Woodman is a young energy analyst based out of Geneva, who after an accident involving a family member finds both his intelligence and his tragic loss rewarded by an idealistic Middle Eastern prince. The latter seeks to reform his country, while his brother, a partying playboy hungry for power has no such scruples. Both brothers are vying to succeed their father as emir. Then, there’s the story of two young laborers who upon loss of their jobs and without any prospects for the future receive help from a friendly stranger at an Edenic madrasa.

Plot isn’t Gaghan’s only problem. He didn’t bother with character development. Thus, while all parts are finely acted, these back-room brokering power players come off as caricatures, pitiless, swigging brandy like first-rate a-holes. They have the bonhomie and the bite necessary for this nasty business, but beyond these primary characteristics there’s nothing else to suggest their humanness.

While Damon and Clooney’s characters have more depth, they too are just figures on a chess board. Whether driven by pain, ambition or a conscience, these “good guys” lose in the end, because the machine is just too complex an enemy. Oil must flow, billions must be made and human lives will get crushed in the process. You want to root for Clooney, unusually frumpy and pudgy (the weight he gained for this role actually led to a serious injury). But he, too, is on a mission to kill. A gruesome torture scene that follows this particular assignment is painful to watch in and of itself—but not because of the man it’s happening to. We’re also not emotionally involved with corporate lawyer Bennett Holiday, who has an alcoholic father to deal with. They are all just insubstantial stories among many parallel plots.

As the movie shows, whether you’re a teenaged Pakistani guest laborer in the Persian Gulf, a Washington power player, or an idealistic Gulf prince, your life is ultimately not your own. The axe can come down in the form of getting laid off and deported or being backstabbed by your protégé in the capital. Even the viewer doesn’t get off the hook. By six degrees of separation we are all cogs in these well-oiled dark machinations.

(Updated: 01/23/08 NJ)

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