Directed by: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, William
Hurt, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer
Released by: Warner Bros.
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
Oil Must Flow
Merciless Look at the Machinations of the Oil Industry
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.