Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris
Cooper, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Amanda Peet, Christopher Plummer,
Alexander Siddig, Mazahar Munir
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 128 Minutes
Release Date: June 20, 2006
“Corruption IS WHY WE WIN!”
This past year showcased many films with strong political commentaries, from Lord of War to The Constant Gardener to Good Night, and Good Luck. Of all the politically charged films to emerge from 2005, the one with the most provocative subject matter, and the most brilliant, was Syriana. The film is an endlessly complex globetrotting thriller involving oil and the corrupt powers that will do anything to control it.
The main reason this one is the most provocative is perhaps its relevance to what many still feel is the motive behind the ongoing war in Iraq. The control of that area’s oil supply has been suspected by opposers of the war ever since it ignited. While I’m on this subject, I should indicate that this film is by no means any sort of political propaganda. It simply makes a statement that anyone, no matter which side of the political fence they stand on, is capable of pure greed, and politicians and representatives of big oil companies can be tempted by greed to the point that they are willing to execute as much corruption in order to get their hands on such a profitable resource.
Writer/director Stephen Gaghan has structured this film in a much similar way to that of Traffic, which he wrote the screenplay for and was awarded the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. If you happen to have seen that film, and if you haven’t you should add it to your rental list, you may recall the complex structuring of the narrative, which interlocked numerous stories set in parts of Mexico and the U.S., all of which was linked together by the subject of drugs, in particular drug trafficking.
What distincts Syriana from that film is that is even more complex and hard to follow, as there are twice as many story angles to keep up with. Let me say right off the bat that, although I find this film to be a true masterpiece, I don’t expect everyone to get the same reaction. It stands apart from what one is used to seeing on screen, in terms of its structure. It may make many viewers restless, but if you’re one who appreciates films told in this form, much like Crash was, and what to be given something to seriously think about, then this film demands your attention.
As hard as this movie is to fully describe, I’ll resort to separating the major story lines and explain them individually. The center core of the story is a merger between two major American oil companies, Connex and Killen. This sudden merger sets in motion the multiple story angles.
The first of which involves veteran CIA operative Robert Barnes (George Clooney), who’s specialized in doing dirty deeds for his government in the Middle East. The opening scene shows him engaging in an undercover arms deal with a band of Iranian terrorists. A detail in the arms exchange has Barnes’s suspicions escalating. He reports this matter to his bosses at the Agency, who then tell him to keep quiet. He’s soon handed an assignment is to travel to Beirut to wipe out the wealthy son of a dying Emir. The agency has labeled him a terrorist, whose money is invested in a lot of dark corners, as Barnes’ superiors put it.
The target in question is Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), whom we learn, in the second of the film’s story angles, is nothing more than an idealist. He is first in line to inherit the position of his dying father, which will have him in full control of his country’s oil supply. He believes that his nation can become stronger by not knuckling under the United States. He wishes for pure value of his country’s oil, and has sold the oil rights to the Chinese in a bidding war.
This makes him none too popular with the powers that be. As a result, American attorneys on behalf of the oil companies begin to lean toward Nasir’s brother, also an Emir candidate, who by can easily be influenced by whatever they promise him. Nasir’s policies attract the attention of Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an American consultant for an energy firm in Geneva, Switzerland.
The third story angle involves an investigation into the merger. A lawyer named Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is brought into oversee the merger process. He is instructed by his boss to simply find a problem within the proposed merger, and if there isn’t one in existence he is expected to create one as a way of providing the “illusion” of due diligence.
The movie grows more intense as the story concerning Clooney’s character unravels. Upon arriving in Beirut to take out his target, he is double crossed by his CIA contact. Barnes is then put through one of the most unthinkable torture methods I’ve ever seen. It’s a brief sequence, but the horrific impact is equal to any of the torture scenes in Hostel. To make matters worse, his superiors at the CIA decide to distant themselves from Barnes, believing that his recent level of suspicious paranoia will hurt their operation. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Barnes is being investigated for past incidents, and right then he knows something isn’t right.
I can't say enough about this film. It's an incredibly challenging film that demands the viewer's attention due to the sheer complexity of the interlocking stories. Just remember the film's tagline, “Everything Is Connected”, and slowly put events together and all issues should be clear.
As for George Clooney, who won a much deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, he delivers what is easily his best performance to date, and he's given many fine ones over the years, including From Dusk Till Dawn and Three Kings. You really feel for his character, and I for one was upset by how the government he trusted and worked under for so long suddenly left him out to dry only because he knew something wasn't right about an operation he was ordered to carry out.
Syriana is far and away one of the great films to come out of 2005, as well as this decade. Rarely does a film get to be both thrillingly intense and extremely provocative, but writer/director Stephen Gaghan and the outstanding cast have managed to bring such a film to life.
Warner delivers tremendously with this anamorphic presentation. Like Traffic, the film is a globetrotting thriller with many different settings, and although the visual tricks administered by Steven Soderbergh are nowhere to be found here, the cinematography by Robert Elswitt is dynamic in its own right, so much so that I feel that it was ignored in the Best Cinematography category at the Oscars. Image quality is consistently clear and crisp, and color appearance is absolutely strong. Outstanding all the way!
The 5.1 mix is definitely strong enough for a thriller of this magnitude. There are numerous explosions which are heard effectively, and Alexandre Deslplat’s powerful score is also delivered strongly. Dialogue delivery is of top notch quality, in addition.
Though I would’ve appreciated more extras for a film such as this, what’s offered on the disc is more acceptable than nothing at all. Included are additional scenes, “A Conversation with George Clooney”, which offers commentary on what makes the film so compelling, an eco-featurette titled “Make a Change, Make a Difference” and a Theatrical Trailer.
Syriana is a brilliant political thriller, plain and simple. Complex; yes, but it’s undeniably compelling in its multi-story narrative. It should serve as a reminder that in the end, we each pay a harsh price for someone else’s greed.