Syriana (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

You may have to look long and hard to find a 2005 movie with as cynical an outlook on global politics as Syriana. Sadly, this is a situation when the cynicism is understandable. In addition to painting a bleak picture, Syriana makes no concessions to impatient audiences or viewers with short attention spans. The density of narrative is remarkable considering the Hollywood trend toward simplification. This movie is plot-driven from start to finish, and it needs all 126 minutes to tell the whole story. It takes approximately three-quarters of that time before we see the pattern as more than just a random interweaving of threads. Give up on or lose track of Syriana and the payoff won't be as forceful.

The relationship between the arms industry and the armed forces is often referred to as the "military-industrial complex" (a term coined in one of President Eisenhower's last speeches to the nation). The general thinking is that the military's need to amass the newest and best weapons keeps the economy going and positively impacts the health of thousands of American corporations. But the reality, at least as depicted in Syriana, is more complicated. It's not just that the need for a strong economy demands a strong military, but that the greed and influence of Big Business (especially the oil industry) sets policy. The relationship between major corporations and the government isn't incestuous, because the politicians are pawns, not bedfellows. Government doesn't do what's best for the people; it does what's best for Big Business, with enough occasional misdirection, grandstanding, and sleight of hand to dupe the voters into believing they're in charge. Ultimately, it's not a question of Democrats or Republicans - both are controlled by the same underlying forces. This is Syriana's thesis, and it stands the test of being applied to today's real-world global politics.

Syriana is not non-fiction. It has been "suggested" by Robert Baer's factual See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, but writer/director Stephen Gaghan (who wrote Traffic) uses Baer's book as a starting point. Although the story applies real-world parallels, it is made-up. But that doesn't lessen its impact or its capacity to generate discussion. Most depressing of all may be Syriana's conclusion that the problem has become so deeply rooted that nothing can dislodge it. Cynical or realistic? Sometimes, it's hard to differentiate.

Providing a synopsis of Syriana would be an exercise in futility. The film is too complex for that. Instead, I'll provide an encapsulation of the set-up. There are three major strands to the plot. The first involves a long-time Middle East CIA operative, Bob Barnes (George Clooney), who is cut loose by the government as soon as he becomes a liability. (You didn't think the government was loyal to its employees?) The second focuses on the merger of two major American oil companies, Connex and Killen. Killen is the lesser of the giants, but it has acquired drilling rights in Kazakhstan that make it an attractive partner. Chris Cooper plays the CEO of Killen and Jeffrey Wright is a lawyer brought in to investigate the proposed merger. Finally, there's Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), the next-in-line to become Emir of an unnamed, oil-rich country. Prince Nasir is reform-minded, and believes that what is best for his people is not knuckling under to the United States. He intends to get value for his country's oil, and this makes him unpopular amongst those with real power.

The structure of Syriana has similarities to Traffic, and that's unsurprising considering that Gaghan penned both scripts. Each includes large numbers of characters gradually moving on a semi-collision course. The setup is long and a little laborious, but it's necessary. This is Gaghan's second directorial outing (his debut was 2002's Abandon). Unlike Steven Soderbergh, who helmed Traffic (and serves as an Executive Producer on this film), Gaghan shies away from visual flourishes. As a result, Syriana has what can best be described as a traditional or "straightforward" look and feel.

The cast is a mix of A-list actors and relative unknowns, and there isn't a weak performance to be found. Even those often thought of as light-weights, such as Matt Damon and Amanda Peet (playing an American "energy analyst" and his wife), have been given roles in which they can shine. The brightest lights are George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, and Alexander Siddig, all of whom deserve recognition (if not by the Academy then by those who see this film). Clooney steps outside his usual image, sporting a scruffy beard and having gained 35 pounds. This is not an heroic role, but he does what's required, and it may open eyes. Wright approaches his part in a low-key manner, but there's a coldness and urgency to the portrayal that we don't fully understand until the film is nearly over. Siddig, who cut his teeth in the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and was impressive earlier this year in Kingdom of Heaven, makes Prince Nasir into a charismatic and determined individual. Actors like Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, and William Hurt have smaller, but not necessarily less important, parts.

Syriana will be a polarizing motion picture, pitting defenders of the establishment against those on the other side. Some will declare that it's the first movie to dare to tell the truth. Others will blast it as liberal propaganda dreamed up by conspiracy theorists. Either way, it's an intensely fascinating look behind a curtain where few of us feel comfortable enough to peer. And one doesn't have to agree with Gaghan's conclusions to be swept along by Syriana's dramatic momentum. I believe that much of Oliver Stone's JFK is well constructed fiction, but that doesn't prevent it from being compelling and a source of endless speculation and interest.

Syriana is an adult motion picture, made with mature viewers in mind. It contains elements of a thriller, but isn't one in a traditional sense. There is no instant gratification. The film challenges its audience and forces them to make their own determinations about the validity of what it proposes. It's a wake-up call. In today's environment, it's a rare thing to find a movie with interesting characters in dense, intelligent storylines, but that's what Syriana offers. It is one of the best films of 2005.

Syriana (United States, 2005)

Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2005
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2005-11-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1