Dec 122005

Syriana (2005)

A politically-charged epic about the state of the oil industry in the hands of those personally involved and affected by it.

Directed by
Stephen Gaghan

Drama, Thriller

Kayvan Novak, George Clooney, Amr Waked, Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, Robert Foxworth, Nicky Henson, Nicholas Art, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Steven Hinkle, Daisy Torm?, Peter Gerety, Richard Lintern

This is a complex film that tries to get the audience to connect the dots –to see that control of the Middle Eastern oil fields is the goal that is at the heart of so much of the political process, both in the Middle East and in the West, and that it is also the catalyst for much of what we call terrorism. I was hoping for a lot from this movie, but was somewhat disappointed.

The film introduces a number of characters and a number of seemingly separate story lines in the beginning, then tries to weave them all together by the end. That makes for a challenging first hour or so, in which the film jumps back and forth from one storyline to another. It can be confusing.

The movie finally does weave most of them together in the last half hour, but it does not completely tie everything up, so the payoff just isn’t there. The conclusion it reaches is not a happy one for many Americans, for what the movie seems to say is American oil companies use any means necessary, including double crosses and outright murder, to protect their access to Middle Eastern oil.

Well enough, for the political message. But does it work as a movie? The answer, in my view, is “kind of.”

The plot centers around the merger of two American oil companies, one a industry giant, which has just lost a big contract in Saudi Arabia to the Chinese, the other a small, independent Texas outfit, that has just won a lucrative contract in a smaller Mideast nation and is now going to be very cash rich. But there’s a hitch. Did the Texas outfit bribe foreign officials, violating the US Corrupt Practices act. Fearing a Justice Department investigation that could block the merger, it hires a high priced Washington law firm to conduct its own investigation, to see what Justice might dig up against it.

At the same time, the Emir of a Persian Gulf oil kingdom is about to retire to Europe and has to pick between two sons to succeed him. One is a pool shooting playboy, the other a serious, reform minded idealist. Problem is, the idealist might not be so anxious to allow US troops to continue to garrison on his soil, while his fun loving brother wants nothing more than to have the Americans there to protect his privileged lifestyle from Islamic radicals. And as all this unfolds, a young Palestinian refugee, thrown out of work by a shift in control of the oil fields, is recruited by al-Qaida or something like it, and becomes involved in a terrorist bombing plot, using a weapon originally delivered by a CIA covert op to the Middle East.

But where the movie falls down is that it fails in someways to weave a human story into this and human stories, after all, are what the movies are all about. George Clooney does a fine job as a sort of world weary CIA agent caught up in the skullduggery. Although not particularly introspective, he does on occasion give you the impression that he’s trying to figure out if he works for the US government or the Houston Petroleum Club. Matt Damon plays an oil industry analyst who is an adviser to the idealist candidate for emir and he is given the task of adding the human element to the story, after his young son drowns in a swimming pool. Unfortunately, Damon falls completely flat, registering almost zero emotion in his role as an exasperated advocate of democracy and reform or even as grieving dad.

And these only partially successful performances and outright failures are where “Syriana” fails –as a film. What “Syriana” lacks is a clear cut central character whose fate is linked to the complex story lines. Clooney’s character is as close as we get, and he does not get enough screen time to really get us involved with him and the moral questions he faces. He at one point is directly involved in an assassination plot, then tries to stop it. The lead up to that is the most suspenseful of the film, but Clooney’s out of nowhere insertion in the payoff scene is the movie’s weakest moment, as if the filmmakers had to recast his character as a born again good guy, despite the silliness of his actions.

In the end, movies rise and fall, not by their political message, but by how their central characters grab us. That simply doesn’t happen in “Syriana.” While we might feel for George Clooney’s character, he is not one who we can fall in love with. Clooney’s C-I-A agent comes off as a tool, discarded by his handlers when he is no longer useful. But the fact that he did not see until the end that he was working, not for his country, but for big oil, makes him a kind of sad dupe and that does not a movie hero make. Actually, had he gotten more screen time, he might well have been a more sympathetic character. But that would have given us less time to ponder the role of the oil companies in all this.

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