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"A potboiler of the most pressing kind."
"It succeeds as a screenplay because Gaghan narrows his focus, concentrating on different points of view and individual stories."
"Adept at delivering macro and micro perspectives without moralism or conviction."
Syriana  

Cast

Robert Barnes: George Clooney
Bryan Woodman: Matt Damon
Julie Woodman: Amanda Peet
Jimmy Pope: Chris Cooper
Dean Whiting: Christopher Plummer
Robby Baer: Max Minghella
Bennett Holiday: Jeffrey Wright
Review December 2005

The whole world revolves around oil. From the heat and electricity that powers and warms homes to the energy and fuels that provide transportation of goods and services across the globe. Everything, it seems, could be linked directly or indirectly to the oil industry - a complex game in which players, roles, and agendas are not easily defined. From writer/director Steven Gaghan, the Academy Award winning writer of "Traffic," "Syriana" pushes the boundaries of political correctness. A potboiler of the most pressing kind, the film wraps itself unabashedly around the politics of the Middle East without passing judgment or standing on a soapbox. Based loosely on CIA special agent Robert Baer's memoirs, See No Evil, "Syriana" examines a spectrum of different and surprisingly interrelated stories from a CIA agent to a Gulf country prince to an energy analyst, an oil tycoon, and a Washington attorney. And it makes a point to show that in world's constant struggle for more and more oil, no side is completely free from corruption or compromise. Boldly original and thought provoking, "Syriana" is a game in which no one really wins because everyone has so much to lose.

The story all begins when one of the Gulf countries led by an affluent, young Arab prince (Nasir) strikes a deal with the Chinese government to supply a portion of its oil and natural gas to the Far East. This, of course, poses a huge blow to Connex, a Texas based oil conglomerate with long standing business interests in the region. With millions and millions of dollars at stake, Connex seeks to counteract the business loss by acquiring a smaller Texas oil company named Killen, owned by Jimmy Pope, which also has drilling rights in the region. Unfortunately, however, the merging of the two companies draws a crowd, most noticeably from Dean Whiting in the Justice Department, who launches his own investigation into the validity and legality of the merger. Under the auspicious eye of Bennett Holiday, one of Whiting's ambitious attorneys, due diligence must be performed and dirt must be uncovered without jeopardizing 'everyone's best interest.'

Meanwhile, CIA agent Bob Barnes is looking forward to a happy retirement with his son heading off to college. But before he can retire, he must perform one final mission - the assassination of Prince Nasir. This assignment, fraught with danger, double agents, betrayals, and outright lies, leads Barnes to come to terms with his own place in the grander scheme of things. And quietly, while Nasir has befriended and confided in energy analyst Bryan Woodman for guidance and help in the oil business, Dean Whiting has covertly brokered a deal with Nasir's father to pass succession on to Nasir's controllable brother Prince Meshal. All the while, in the oil fields, Connex workers like Saleem Ahmed Kahn have been laid off following the Chinese take over, forced to starve and suffer. Easily disenfranchised, they find their own ways to exact revenge against a complex system that toys with their livelihood.

Like the many Altman films of yore and Stephen Gaghan's very own "Traffic," "Syriana" begins as a series of unrelated stories, only to progress and find interesting similarities and connections throughout. But unlike films such as "Shortcuts" and "Nashville," "Syriana" engages in so much complexity and so much depth that to fully comprehend the plot, you may need a master's in political science. Surprisingly, this technique works in the film's favor, depicting a global industry that cannot be reduced to a two-hour summation. And it succeeds as a screenplay because Gaghan narrows his focus, concentrating on different points of view and individual stories, stories and situations that create sympathetic, engaging, and oftentimes, hard-boiled characters. Truthfully, the film avoids conclusions and leaves a lot of open-ended questions. After all, in the real world, the lines are frequently blurred, as you would be hard pressed to find a definitive good guy, a bad guy, or an easy answer.

Because of its approach, "Syriana" is a particularly important and thought provoking film. Impartial and undeterred, it presents its subject material and characters without judgment. And in doing so, it becomes more about the exploration of diverse points of views, than about singling any one perspective out and claiming universal truth. Although there is quite a bit of complexity and ambiguity with the plot, there are also many fascinating and compelling interactions between the industry's leading players. Most importantly, the film suggests that in spite of all good/bad intentions, fierce power moves, and violent threats, we are all affected by the presence or lack of oil. And frighteningly, not even the politicians and experts in Washington, Arab emirs, CIA agents, oil and gas engineers and analysts fully understand the entire picture and the scope of its impact.

In much the same way as "Traffic" uses smugglers and addicts, corrupt and honest police officers, lords and czars to explore the effects of international drug dealing, "Syriana" uses CIA agents, attorneys, oil tycoons, Arab emirs, commodities experts, and oil workers to tell its story - a story that carefully shows the influence one individual can have on a global scale. And it does so by employing some great acting talent. There's George Clooney, who gains a little weight and scruffiness to play against type, a veteran CIA agent willing to risk his life for his country but unable to communicate with his college bound son. And Matt Damon, playing a Geneva based trader, who exudes confidence, great articulation, and poise until a personal tragedy undermines everything in his life. Jeffrey Wright takes on the role of Bennett Holiday, an up and coming Washington attorney who struggles to do his due diligence in an oil merger filled with shady dealings. And Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Alexander Siddig, and William Hurt all add intrigue, diversity, and plenty of coarseness around the edges.

Yet, as entertaining as the film can be, it can also be very empty at times, unwilling to fill in the appropriate backgrounds, content to just wander very loosely. Or jump right in, midstream. As mentioned before, this is intentional and not so much a critical flaw as it is a personal preference. Wanting to know what will happen to Bob Barnes and his future with the CIA, wanting to know what will become of the Woodmans, and wanting to know what will become of Bennett Holiday once his true colors have emerged. The film toggles back and forth between all of these stories so frequently that occasionally, some cohesion is lost. Some understanding is not reached. And in spite of its provocative nature, there remains an incomplete feeling, a lack of fullness. Not to mention a scary afterthought when realizing the futility of something that is far greater than any group of individuals, business, or government can manage on its own.

Says Danny Dalton, "Corruption is our protection?Corruption keeps us safe and warm?Corruption is why we win." The words won't necessarily help you sleep at night, but in Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana," corruption is an every day part of the global political game. And it's the kind of game where the boundaries between business and politics and everyday survival are mixed. Featuring an entire cast of supporting characters and a series of carefully managed storylines that find ways to interconnect, "Syriana" is both enlightening and refreshing. Although far from concrete and conclusive, the film is adept at delivering macro and micro perspectives without moralism or conviction. Because in spite of any kind of difference, far beneath the guise of big business and power politics, lie some very fundamental human needs. In particular, the need to create a better life for our children.



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