June 27, 2006
Starring: George Clooney, Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, Matt Damon, William Hurt, Alexander Siddig, Amanda Peet, Amr Waked, Robert Foxworth, Nicky Henson, Tim Blake Nelson,
If there’s one good thing that has come out of George W. Bush’s presidency it is a wealth of politically and socially-minded art in response to his unpopular regime. Leading the charge, in Hollywood at least, is George Clooney who has positioned himself as a vocal liberal celebrity with two high profile movies in 2005: Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana. The latter film was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), and was loosely based on Robert Baer’s memoir of his days as a CIA operative in the Middle East, See No Evil.
Structurally, Syriana follows the same template as Traffic with several subplots structured in a non-linear fashion but containing more layers and complexities. Syriana follows four significant threads. Bennett Holiday (Wright) is an attorney working for a Washington, D.C. law firm whose job it is to make sure that the United States government approves a merger between two large oil companies, Connex and Killen, both of whom have lucrative oil drilling refineries in the Middle East.
Robert Barnes (Clooney) is a CIA field agent who works in the Middle East collecting information on and preventing the trafficking of weapons by arms dealers. After one particular job, he suspects something is wrong and after writing a memo to his superiors is given a desk job. He gets increasingly frustrated with them because they have no idea what is really going on in the Middle East.
Bryan Woodman (Damon) is an idealistic energy analyst based in Switzerland. His superiors assign him to work Prince Nasir (Siddig) in the Persian Gulf in a consulting capacity while juggling a tragedy in his personal life. Woodman soon finds himself caught up in a power struggle between Nasir and his brother for control of their ailing father’s vast empire.
The last storyline shows how terrorists are cultivated. Bored, angry young men are fired from their jobs at an American oil refinery in the Middle East and this results in a deep resentment towards these wealthy companies. It also makes these men easy recruits for terrorist organizations who appeal to their religious beliefs and provide them a structure and a purpose to their lives.
In the little screen time he has early on, Clooney does an excellent job showing the rusty compass that his character lives his life by. The actor has improved and refined himself with every subsequent role and relies more and more on what is going on behind his eyes than falling back on his good looks. His performance in Syriana goes beyond the obvious Method trappings – the weight gain and the thick beard – to his expressive eyes and how he uses them to convey Barnes’ world-weariness. This role is easily his strongest to date and his Academy Award was well-deserved.
One of the film’s central themes is the strained relationships between fathers and their sons. Barnes’ son resents all the moving around that they do as a result of his old man’s job and this robs him of a normal life. Woodman must cope with the tragic death of his little boy. Holiday copes with his alcoholic father who disapproves of his son’s work and the effect it has on his well-being.
Gaghan’s direction reflects the stories in the movie. Everything isn’t spelled out. There are a lot of gray areas with morally and ethically ambiguous characters whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. If, at times, it is hard to follow all of the characters in this film it is done on purpose to illustrate just how hard it is to keep track of all the players in the Middle East oil trade and their numerous alliances, both obvious and secretive, with corporations and governments. Trying to make sense of it all can be a confusing and frustrating experience.
The timing of Syriana couldn’t be more relevant as it exposes the dirty dealings between the U.S. government, American corporations and various oil-rich families in the Middle East. Reading between the lines, it also sheds light on the real reason why the U.S. is in Iraq. It isn’t to democratize its people, as the White House party line would have us all believe, but because of their abundant oil resources and the money Bush and his cronies make from it. While this is nothing new to anyone who is well-informed, this film does act as a decent primer to the uninitiated.
“A Conversation with George Clooney.” The actor feels that Syriana is designed like the films from the 1970s that examined geopolitics. He praises Gaghan’s screenplay and how it was responsible for attracting the talented cast. He talks about Robert Baer, the man that his character is loosely based on, and what he learned from talking to him.
“Make A Change, Make A Difference” isn’t really a making of featurette but rather the cast talking about the subject matter of the movie. Clooney and Damon speak about their passion for the material and how they felt that here was a project that actually had something to say about how our world works. Baer says that the film is about our addiction to oil while Clooney points out that it is also about corruption.
Also included are three deleted scenes that feature footage with Barnes and his wife (Greta Scacchi who does not appear in the final film). These are nice moments that showcase the strained relationship between the couple and reinforce the toll that his job is taking on them. Also included is a nice scene that shows how out of touch Barnes is with his immediate superior. You can see why this was cut as it was already conveyed amply in the movie.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.