The bulk of media coverage relating to Syriana gives the impression that this is one of the most searing and controversial docudramas ever made, intended to sock it to President George W. Bush and the conservative right. Provocative, yes, and timely for sure, but controversial? To some extent, perhaps, but Fahrenheit 9/11 it is not.

Syriana is partly inspired by See No Evil, the Robert Baer book that chronicles his experiences in the CIA with terrorism and the oil industry. Writer and director Stephen Gaghan uses that along with his own research to scrutinize the business and politics of international oil in the same way that the drug trade was explored in Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film Traffic, for which Gaghan earned an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Both movies boast remarkably deep casts of acclaimed actors, and both tackle their subjects with interwoven storylines. It's a device that allows Syriana to effectively cover the economic, legal, political, and social ramifications of trade relations between America and the Middle East over one of the world's most precious commodities.

George Clooney stars as Robert Barnes, a CIA operative investigating the illegal arms trade

George Clooney stars as Robert Barnes, a CIA operative investigating the illegal arms trade

The first of the film's storylines involves Robert Barnes, a middle-aged CIA operative clearly derived from Robert Baer, and played by a heavier-set George Clooney. He's in Iran tracking down the illegal arms trade among terrorists when one of the weapons he's using as bait goes missing. Before he can pursue it further, he's taken off the assignment to investigate Nasir Al-Subaai (Star Trek: DS9's charismatic Alexander Siddig), who is rumored to have "funds in dark corners" as the apparent heir to an Arab empire. Barnes is simply trying to carry out his life's work while doing what's best for his family, but he soon finds himself in over his head when he becomes involved in an international cover-up.

Next is Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a young energy analyst and oil broker in Switzerland. Tragedy strikes his family at a party hosted by the Al-Subaai family. As a result, he's offered the opportunity to become the Prince's personal financial advisor and help shape the future of the world's oil industry. But what is Woodman getting himself into, and what price will he pay when asked to choose between his new position and his loyalty to America and his family?

An uncharacteristically subdued Jeffrey Wright plays Bennett Holiday, an up-and-coming D.C. lawyer assigned to oversee the merger between two American oil companies: the giant Conex and the smaller Killen. His role requires him to search for any illegalities in the proposed merger, although he soon learns that not everything is in clear black and white when it comes to the oil trade, especially when the American government wants the merger to happen at all costs.

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Alexander Siddig as a young Arab prince, and Matt Damon as his personal financial advisor

Alexander Siddig as a young Arab prince, and Matt Damon as his personal financial advisor

Then there's Wasim Khan, a Pakistani teen working with his father at a Persian Gulf oil refinery. Unfortunately, the new oil merger forces them both out of a job, and they are unable to find work as second-class citizens. Wasim is then almost immediately caught up in the controversial teachings of a charismatic cleric. Though it's clear from the start where the boy is headed, it's still one of the film's most affecting storylines, explaining a youth's sad and misguided embrace of terrorism without justifying his actions or demonizing his character.

As might be expected, Syriana implicates the U.S., but it does so without fingering a specific administration—Bush or otherwise—and if Iraq is mentioned at all in this film, it's only in passing without commentary on the war. Moreover, the film clearly spreads the blame across everyone involved—not just America, but also the Arab States, China, Pakistan, and the terrorists caught up in the ideological fervor. If anything, the American oil execs come off the worst, painted as greedy and careless businessmen.

Gaghan nevertheless roots the story in fictional characters, which allows for the argument that these people aren't necessarily the norm. So while some conservatives and liberals will insist the movie promotes a leftist agenda, it's not nearly as polarizing as has been suggested. Not to say that Syriana presents all facets of the subject, undoubtedly leaving out some facts while blowing others out of proportion—it's perhaps a little reminiscent of Oliver Stone's JFK in that way. But it's one thing for a movie to raise questions on a given subject via realistic fiction and quite another to irresponsibly lob accusations while pretending to objectively present all the facts.

Christopher Plummer is impressive as Dean Whiting, but exactly who is this guy, anyway?

Christopher Plummer is impressive as Dean Whiting, but exactly who is this guy, anyway?

Still, what are we to take from the film? The ultimate point seems to be that corruption exists in the international business world, to which the majority of us can answer with a resounding, "Duh." (One look at the prices at the gas pump would seem to confirm that.) Syriana doesn't really offer clear-cut solutions, but in a way, that's appreciated. Like the drug dilemma presented in Traffic, this movie presents a serious problem and gives viewers a lot to consider, but ultimately it's left shrugging, unsure of what to suggest. And that's okay—the point of the film is to give viewers a lot to consider, and not to solve the world oil crisis.

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Taken in proper perspective, Syriana is often engrossing and well acted. Though the story structure is complex, it's not much different than reading a Tom Clancy novel or following a complicated TV series like 24. Part of the film's enjoyment and education is seeing how these stories intertwine, both for dramatic purposes and because the world is similarly complex.

With that said, it's a shame that Gaghan fumbles the storytelling. It's all well and good to throw the audience into the deep end, putting viewers in over their heads just like the people depicted in the film. The problem is that Gaghan's exposition doesn't even bother trying to establish characters, and as the confusion compounds, it becomes harder to discern or care about the intricacies of the plot.

Ultimately, the film is not as politically explosive as some mainstream critics are making it out to be

Ultimately, the film is not as politically explosive as some mainstream critics are making it out to be

Take Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) and Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) as an example. Their characters are never properly introduced, though eventually, you figure out that Pope is probably the head of Killen, the smaller oil company. Is Dalton his associate, or Killen's legal representative, or for that matter, is he with Conex? It's never firmly established, and even though his is a minor character, glossing over such a detail diminishes his Machiavellian speech about the need for corruption in international business.

Likewise, Christopher Plummer is impressive in his role as Dean Whiting, but it's never clear whether he's a politician, a lawyer, or some other form of powerful Washington insider. Since his role is central to more than one subplot, it would have helped to discern who he is exactly. And since the confusion only builds from the poor exposition, it's hard to understand Barnes' rationale for his role in the climax of the film.

A shame then that this movie carries such potential to be one of the year's best, when it falls short because Gaghan tries too hard to streamline the story and make it unconventional. The result is a movie that causes more confusion than controversy, when really its primary objective should be to communicate effectively. Syriana is nevertheless interesting and worth watching, despite the fact that complete comprehension of the film seems just beyond the reach of the viewer.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What's your opinion on the world's oil crisis? Can it be solved through diplomacy among nations? Economic policy? Scientific development? Some combination of all these things? Will the world have to rely on other sources of fuel to carry on?

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  1. What motivates the film's central characters? Is it power and greed, or some other sense of responsibility? Do you feel these characters and organizations accurately reflect people of similar position in the world today?

  2. What do you make of Wasim's character? Was he misguided, or did he simply act out of desperation? In what other ways do youth become disillusioned and fall prey to false teachings? How are such people saved from such desperate acts?

  3. Do you think this film has an "agenda"? Why or why not? If so, what is its agenda?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Intended for adults interested in politics and intrigue, Syriana is rated R for violence and some language, but primarily for the language, which isn't rampant but strong enough to earn its rating. The only intense violence comes from a squirm-inducing scene of torture that will leave audiences with a newfound appreciation for fingernails. There's also a teen who half-jokingly states, "If man is made in God's image, then God is messed up."

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 12/15/05

For those seeking something besides Aslan's big screen kingdom, here's an alternative: Syriana, director Stephen Gaghan's complicated thriller about oil, corruption, and intrigue starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, and Christopher Plummer.

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "Syriana offers a bleak yet eye-opening look (albeit from one director's perspective) at how countries and corporations are determined to protect their oil interests. At its core, it is a scathing indictment of how oil and the money and influence it generates corrupts everyone who seeks to control it. Almost every character experiences erosion of his integrity at some point—even those who are trying, on some level, to do the right thing. So it's a profoundly pessimistic moral picture that's painted onscreen, as it suggests that much of what we depend upon in government and business isn't just eaten away at the edges, it's thoroughly rotten."

He concludes, "Syriana will cause those who see it to ask, 'Is it really that bad?' I can't answer that question. But I can tell you it's a question worth wrestling with—though I'm not sure any of us need to see a film as violently despairing as Syriana in order to begin grappling with it."

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Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) writes, "This is a better than average movie, but you may not agree with all of its politics. Whether you take the proposed ideas and scenarios as absolute fact or not can be a side issue, and you can instead notice the things that are presented as being valuable, namely: humanity and honesty."

Mainstream critics are impressed, but they're also struggling to sort it out.

from Film Forum, 12/22/05

Andrew Coffin (World) says, "What's just plain silly is the way critics have taken Syriana at face value, as if it's some sort of biting, impartial look at Big Oil, the CIA, and the Middle East, when it most clearly is not. Syriana gives off the air of complexity and depth because it is, on the surface, confusing—characters enter and exit the story without much introduction or explanation about who they work for or what they're doing. But it doesn't take long to figure out that every character serves the same purpose: to blame the U.S. government and U.S. corporations for every evil in the Middle East."

Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for violence and some language)
Directed By
Stephen Gaghan
Run Time
2 hours 8 minutes
George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet
Theatre Release
December 09, 2005 by Warner Bros.
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