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Grade: C-Syriana(2005)

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Stars: George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Damon, Alexander Siddig

Release Company: Warner Brothers

MPAA Rating: R

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Gaghan: Syriana


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Some paint the world in plain black and white while others continually see shades of gray. The same goes for morality and politics, so if you enjoyed Traffic, you "might" find some pleasure in director/writer Stephen Gaghan's Syriana. After all, Gaghan won the Oscar for his Traffic screenplay that explored the War on Drugs to illustrate its complexities and corruptions. Syriana follows similar disjointed structure requiring viewers to piece the puzzle together to discover that the Middle East oil situation is ... duh ... full of complexities and corruptions.

Cloaking Oliver Stone-like message mongering with Tarantino film techniques, Gaghan preaches well known leftist political tomes. More like heaves them like bricks at viewers' heads the same way frustrated Palestinian youth have chucked them at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. Die hard conservatives will feel like "their" fingernails have been ripped out while confirmed liberals will feel vindicated for already knowing how evil corporations and the C.I.A. have been. Serious thinkers may appreciate how Gaghan doesn't automatically cue viewers directly into his piecemeal plot but feel let down that a simplistic morality tale lies beneath a deliberately obscured cinematic curtain. Most of the audience will emerge just saying, “WTF?”

On the plus side a talented ensemble cast weaves its way through Gaghan's conspiracy rich screenplay to give credible performances for the required stereotypes. Garnering the most publicity for gaining weight and then suffering a real back injury during a torture sequence is George Clooney as Bob Barnes, a middle-aged C.I.A. operative who dutifully sells arms to trusted insiders to carry out approved assassinations and missions. Barnes turns out to be nothing more than a pawn in the larger game—initially betrayed by an arms dealer who grants terrorists access to a U.S. missile and later by his parent agency.

Although the thought of Middle Eastern terrorists grab the headlines, Gaghan points out that they actually enable U.S. corporate greed. As long as the Persian Gulf remains chaotic and the native oil barons remain satisfied with expensive "toys" and a lavish lifestyle, U.S. oil barons continue to roll in big profits. After a horrible family tragedy, ambitious energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) leaves his news position to advise idealistic Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), who wants to lead his country full force into democracy and free enterprise. He sees the region the same way that Woodman does, understanding the importance of re-investing their profits back into the oil business and dealing with competing nations like China while letting the free market determine the price.

Of course, the Prince's father currently "runs" the business by lounging the "good life" in Europe while American companies do the real work, and it is up to the sheik whether reform-minded Prince Nasir or his younger brother will inherit the family business. Nasir proclaims that his brother isn't even fit "to run a brothel," but young Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha) merely plans to carry on his father's policies and live the same lavish European lifestyle. It doesn't take too much brain power to figure out which brother U.S. corporations favor, and the same goes for the government.

Similarly, on the American home front, the government quietly pushes ahead for a proposed merger between Connex and Killen oil companies. Although a government lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) assigned to investigate the merger, his boss (Christopher Plummer) makes it apparent that U.S. best interests are in synch with what is best for the U.S. oil business. Thus, Wright must find some corrupt individual bodies to sacrifice while allowing the merger to sail through. Should the lawyer find his hypocrisy difficult to deal with, he does have a nightly encounter with his drunken father outside his Georgetown apartment to remind him of his humanity.

Chris Cooper remains a pleasure for his relatively small character role, this time as the CEO of the smaller oil company that scores a major coup in the upcoming merger. While others couch their rhetoric carefully, Cooper bluntly speaks his mind whether barbequing Texas ribs or during corporate meetings. Unlike Michael Corleone, when Cooper's character sees things in terms of what is best for his business, he likely doesn't realize the far reaching blood consequences of his actions. Ironically, one of the far reaching ones even involves a destitute Pakistani youth (Mazhar Munir), who is recruited for a suicide bombing mission against Connex.

There's more, but essentially the tag line "everything's connected" applies to Gaghan's cinematic canvas. Visual reminders of the width and breadth of the corrupt situation come from location shooting that spans from the states, to Europe, to Middle Eastern sets in Morocco and Dubai. It's a heady film that few will describe as entertaining; more will cite it as important because Gaghan's focus is clearly slanted towards delivering a knockout political blow. With so many converging plots, it's difficult to get inside the skin of any one character.

Individual scenes are truly memorable and compelling, making Syriana feel like a seed source for future film projects. I'd certainly be interested in deeper studies of Wright's conflicted government lawyer character, in Damon's struggle between political idealism and family life, in the suicide bomber's dilemma, or in the Clooney character's rise and fall from C.I.A. grace. Come to think of it, Robert Redford did a similar take on the C.I.A. thirty years ago in Three Days of the Condor. Similarly chilling by painting a picture of governmental corruption and how useless it may be to combat the system, Pollack's film was far easier to follow and didn't clobber us with the pointed political lecture that Gaghan's opus does.


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