Syriana is a difficult political/economic thriller to watch on many levels, and challenging to process.
First of all the plot. Because George Clooney is in a film of this genre, we go in expecting it to be a political commentary and critique, and it is. I have not read the book on which Syriana is based, See No Evil by Robert Baer (though I just ordered it from www.Amazon.com; it was out of stock at Barnes & Noble which I hit just after seeing the movie last Sunday), but I want to. The film made me want to verify the truth of the film (even if the facts are not exact), because the film looks like a trip through the unsavory and unscrupulous underbelly of a world governed by the people who control the oil. And no, the United States does not come out looking good. The U.S. government, represented by the CIA (the only key female figure is like a vice-director of the CIA), looks really, really scary. Oil companies and the men (note men) who run them, even worse.
Syriana is directed by Stephen Gaghan who won an Academy Award for his script for the drug thriller Traffic in 2000. To be noted is that Stephen Soderbergh directed Traffic, and that Soderbergh and Clooney have an ongoing creative relationship that witnesses to their concerns about the world’s movement toward a global political economy over democracy, and profit over people. (Have you noticed the pattern coming from Hollywood yet? The Manchurian Candidate, In Good Company, The Constant Gardener and others? I don’t mind; I like films with ideas.)
Another sign of Soderbergh’s influence is Syriana’s technical style. It’s like a big screen dramatic version of the Soderbergh/Clooney HBO 2003 short-lived television series K-Street (a smart comedy I enjoyed.) There were myriad characters following lines of intrigue but we never knew enough to figure out the whole story because of the continual switching between the plot lines.
Syriana is a blend of Traffic for subject matter and K-Street for style. Oil is the drug, and there’s so much corruption at so many levels, it’s depressing. Syriana is not entertainment; it’s a sometimes blurry lesson in current events that is provokes (irritates) and evokes reflection and a response at the same time.
Here’s my take on the plot; for the names of all the actors, please see www.imdb.org. I think this is what happens:
An oil company in Houston wants the oil contract from Kazakhstan, but they lose to China. Meanwhile, they are merging with another U.S. oil company to become the fifth largest oil concern in the world. The new company outbids the Chinese for the oil from a small Arabian country run by a dying Emir and his two prince sons. The new oil company is corrupt. A lawyer is hired to investigate the new company’s actions and ends up being corrupted as well. A CIA operative Bob (George Clooney) delivers two missiles to some Arabs, but one is stolen, lost. Bob writes memos about the situation in the Middle East, but no one in the CIA wants to read them (we are never sure why). Bob is recalled and then given an assignment: to assassinate the older prince, who does not seem to favor U.S.interests, but he outwits Bob in Beirut. Bob is tortured for information, then the CIA recalls him, takes away his passport, and wants to lose him.
Meanwhile, an attorney and economic advisor to the Emir in Geneva, Bryan, (Matt Damon) is unhappy with his job, but visits the Emir in Spain. There his oldest child is accidentally killed (or so it seems). When Bryan visits the older prince in his country, he gives the prince sage advice, and the prince offers to pay him to be his advisor. The prince is a good man who wants to modernize his country and build an infrastructure to benefit his people. But the younger prince has the ear of the Emir, and only wants the profit.
Things do not end well.
I thought all the performances were excellent, even if I didn’t follow every detail of the plot as it looped and cross-cut across the landscape of the politics of oil. The older prince, played by Shahid Ahmed, should get your attention, one because he acts his part with depth, and two because he turns out to embody the goodness and soul of the story from the Arab perspective, as Bryan from the economic side, and Bob, from the political dimension.
But everyone sells their soul at some point in this story, and that’s troubling. If everyone sells their souls for greed, power, and pride, then what does that portend for the soul of the world?
Politics of oil? what about ethics of oil?
Don’t miss this film; it will make you brood – and pray.