Eye For Film >> Movies >> Syriana (2005) Film Review
Reviewed by: Anton Bitel
Opening with one character being offered "liquid MDMA" in a Tehran club and closing with another telling his alcoholic father to "leave the beer," as he helps him stagger back into the house, Stephen Gaghan's Syriana is clearly, like his Oscar-winning screenplay for Traffic, a study of the causes and effects of addiction. This time, however, it is not drugs that are at issue, but the US's addiction to cheap oil (acknowledged even by President George W Bush, himself a Texan oilman, in his latest State of the Union address) and its pervasive influence behind the scenes of a far wider geopolitical stage.
After Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), an educated reformist in an unnamed Gulf state, accepts a Chinese bid for oil drilling rights, rejecting a lower offer from Texan conglomerate Connex, he finds himself with enemies in very high places - even if rising energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) has become a true believer in the Prince's cause.
As Connex merges with smaller Texan oil company Killen, ambitious attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is assigned by his powerful boss Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) to perform due diligence and quickly learns how to play the power game in Washington. When his mission to assassinate Prince Nasir goes terribly wrong, patriotic CIA field agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney) realises that for years he has been blind to the real motivation behind his operations in the Middle East. Meanwhile, young Pakistani migrant labourer Wasim (Mazhar Munir) loses his job when Connex leaves Prince Nasir's oilfields and falls in with a charismatic preacher who happens to have in his possession a US Stinger missile.
Loosely inspired by See No Evil, the memoirs of former CIA agent Robert Baer, Syriana weaves its four criss-crossing narratives into a complex political thriller that, through the iridescent prism of petrol, exposes the links between big business and government, domestic interests and foreign policy, the fuel supply and the War On Terror. Preferring probing questions to pat solutions and characters who are complicated and compromised rather than simply (as Bush might put it) "good" or "evil", the film drills deep in its exploration of the US's ventures, both economic and military, in the Middle East.
Syriana is the term used by Washington's Right-leaning think tanks for an imagined Middle East, remade in America's image, and while there can be little doubt that Gaghan's film has NeoCon neocolonialism in its sights, it also contains enough combustible material to make all those who own a car think a little harder about where their gas comes from and what its real price is for others with whom they would not normally feel connected.
As Gaghan draws vivid links between Washington shenanigans, Gulf state politics, the lives of workers in the Middle East and terrorism (whether real or invented, individual or state-sponsored), the hard truths that it extracts make for uncomfortable, if revealing, viewing. No coincidence, then, that the film also features one of the most unpleasant torture sequences ever seen in mainstream cinema and one that, for all the awful physical anguish that its victim is put through, does lead him to rethink profoundly everything in his life.
Now there is a metaphor for the film's aim to bring about a conversion, however painful, in the viewer's most deeply held assumptions. Multi-faceted, open-ended and provocative, Syriana is a film whose many parallel scenes, recurring motifs and curious ironies offer plenty of fuel for thought. Top this up with a note-perfect ensemble cast, sharp dialogue and frenetic pacing, and you have a high-octane thriller for adults.Reviewed on: 03 Mar 2006