Political Thriller Set in the Corrupt World of Oil
Syriana (2005) is an ensemble piece with a large number of speaking parts, but three actors carry much of the load: George Clooney, Matt Damon and Jeffrey Wright. Also, there are several well-known actors in smaller roles, including Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Amanda Peet and Tim Blake Nelson. While the movie features an outstanding cast, the most memorable character is played by George Clooney, and I can certainly see why his performance earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Stephen Gaghan, best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for Traffic, wrote and directed Syriana. Essentially, what Traffic did for the global narcotics trade, Syriana does for the international oil industry. Both films are thought-provoking, although I found Traffic slightly more engrossing. Still, Syriana is worth watching because it is well-written, well-acted, visually interesting and takes an intriguing look at the contemporary world.
Interrelated Stories of Three American Men
Events are set in motion in Syriana by a crisis within the royal family of a fictional, unnamed Arab oil emirate. The U.S. government responds vigorously to protect American interests in the region, and a pair of oil companies are spurred to attempt a gargantuan corporate merger. The film mostly focuses on the parallel stories of three men caught up in all the maneuvering:
1. Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a veteran CIA field agent who is assigned the task of arranging the assassination of an Arab prince.
2. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a financial expert trying to help an Arab prince bring about progressive reform in his country.
3. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a Washington, D.C., attorney who must navigate some tricky waters if the corporate merger is to go through.
In addition, the movie has yet a fourth parallel story about a young unemployed Pakistani man who is drawn to radical Islam.
As I've tried to suggest here, Syriana has a much more complex plot than we're used to seeing in contemporary mainstream films. However, due to Gaghan's skills, everything is fairly clear, even at first viewing, provided you pay attention. In any case, DVD makes it easy to watch the movie more than once if you feel the need to fill in some of the details you might have missed.
A Theme-Driven Film
The central theme of Syriana is the dependence of the United States on oil and the problems this causes. Actually, it seems to me that the movie's plot and characters are cooked up to support this theme. To a large extent, how much you like the film will be determined by how you feel about this way of constructing a story. As for me, I prefer humanistic movies built around character. Nevertheless, I recommend Syriana because of its worthy theme, its fascinating setting and its strong performances.
A Memorable Speech
My favorite bit of dialogue in Syriana is when Houston oil man Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) gives his views on how the international oil industry works to attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright): "Corruption? Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That's Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm! Corruption is why you and I are prancin' around in here instead of fightin' over scraps of meat out in the street. Corruption is why we win."
Gaghan's Explanation of the Film's Title
On the movie's Web site put up by Warner Bros., writer-director Stephen Gaghan is quoted as saying that "'Syriana' is a term used by Washington think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East." But he goes on to say that in the film's title the term is used more abstractly to mean "the fallacious dream that you can successfully remake nation-states in your own image."
DVD Extras: Clooney Interview, Deleted Scenes, Advocacy Piece
The DVD provides a nine-minute featurette titled "A Conversation With George Clooney." He's very articulate, and I found this interview to be quite interesting. Among other topics, he talks about going on location in Morocco and how his character is based loosely on former CIA operative Robert Baer, author of the memoir See No Evil.
Also on the DVD are three deleted scenes with a total running time of about six minutes. Clooney appears in all of them, and I particularly enjoyed the two of these that give us a glimpse into Bob Barnes' relationship with his estranged wife, played by Greta Scacchi. The actress does not appear at all in the movie's final cut.
Finally, the DVD contains an 11-minute advocacy piece titled "Make a Change, Make a Difference" in which the crew and cast of Syriana try to persuade viewers to join the cause of reducing oil consumption.
On the next page, I have given the details for the Syriana DVD.