A film review by Craig J. Koban



RANK: # 5


2005, R, 126 mins.

Robert Barnes: George Clooney / Bryan Woodman: Matt Damon / Julie Woodman: Amanda Peet / Jimmy Pope: Chris Cooper / Dean Whiting: Christopher Plummer / Robby Baer: Max Minghella / Bennett Holiday: Jeffrey Wright

Directed and written by Stephen Gaghan / Based on the book by Robert Baer

Stephen Gaghan’s newest thriller - SYRIANA - continues the recent tradition of other films  –like this year’s THE CONSTANT GARDENER – as works that deal with world politics and business that are also vile, cynical, and nihilistic to their core.  Whereas GARDENER focused on the concepts of the pungent and despicable practices that pharmaceutical companies are using in poor, Third World countries, SYRIANA tackles other hotbed issues that will most likely polarize viewers – oil, big business, world politics, and how all of them are inextricably intertwined. 

The film is ruthlessly cold-hearted and pessimistic at its core and, much like Oliver Stone’s JFK, it amalgamates fiction and a sense of real life politics to create an intricate fabric of convoluted dealings, double-crosses, manipulations, and ultimate tragedy.  SYRIANA is a decidedly bleak picture, and in our current geo-political, post-9/11 climate, it just may be one of the most indicative pictures of our current decade.  It sure is a fascinating, compelling, involving, and absorbing political masterpiece.

I have never seen a picture that places such intimate demands on its viewers to be – of all things – patient and perceptive.  This is one of those incredibly rare anti-Hollywood establishment pictures in the sense that, after you’ve sat through it and leave the darkened theatre, you are amazed that a film like this was able to fly in under the radar and be made in the first place.  We live in a cinematic age where countless films find pandering and nauseatingly obtuse ways of spelling out the motivations of characters and – regrettably – where the plot is going at all times.  SYRIANA - despite its incredibly engrossing, yet wildly elaborate and intricate, plot – never, for one minute or moment, makes any deals with lazy and thick-skulled viewers who need constant reminders about what they are watching.  This is a film that you need to watch, listen to, think about and absorb.  It's amazingly tight at 126 minutes in the sense that it presents an extraordinary confluence of characters, divergent motives, and subplots to which a clear view of the proceedings and how everyone relates to the other is not clear until close to the end.  More than anything, this just may be the first film I’ve ever seen that could have easily come with footnotes.

That last comment is not a criticism; it’s a heartfelt compliment.  Watching the film is like sparring with an opponent that is noticeably more skilled than you and is one step ahead of you at any given time.  I felt off-balance and blind-sided by the plot more times than not – sometimes to the point of sheer confusion, other times to the point of revered amazement, and then back to a point of exasperating incredulity.  Yet, the film creates an undeniable vibe in its viewers as a direct result of its schematic-like narrative.  It fosters a feeling of ambivalence, confusion, chaos, and anger in its viewers, which I feel strongly correlates with those of its characters as well. 

The audience will really have a hard time dissecting through the film’s story of ambition and amoral governmental and big business interference in worldwide affairs and politics.  Maybe this is because the personas in the film themselves have a tricky time making heads or tails of it.  SYRIANA does not work as a succinct and pointed commentary or editorial piece that is clear and concise about the innocent and guilty parties in world governments and businesses.  Rather, the film creates an atmosphere and a convincing tone of moral outrage.  By the end, no one is really all that innocent.

First and foremost, SYRIANA is actually the geopolitical term used by the CIA to describe the volatile areas of the Middle East which could, subsequently, ignite up in potentially damaging ways for US held interests there.  It also should be noted that the film is not completely fictionally based.  It has been inspired, maybe more suggested, by real life CIA officer Robert Baer’s factual account SEE NO EVIL: THE TRUE STORY OF A GROUND SOLDIER IN THE CIA’S WAR ON TERRORISM.  Gaghan, who is no stranger to complex and elaborate stories (he won an Oscar for his script for TRAFFIC, one of the decade’s best films), used Baer’s book as a starting point. 

The film is ostensibly a work of make-believe from start to finish, but there is an overwhelming layer of realism and verisimilitude in the way the story parallels real life politics, business interests, and how they oftentimes intersect together.  The film – if I could use the term – is simply about oil, but it spirals and radiates around with such free abandon that, a few hours later, one is left with an impression that this is a business with corporate and Federal eyes all pointing in the same direction. Inevitably and unfortunately, some of the participants are either undeservedly admired as heroes or unjustly dead as a result.  SYRIANA places a face on these evildoers, and it does so frankly and without remorse.  This is the key to film’s genius – it’s unethically complex, endlessly enthralling, and unapologetically unnerving and diabolical all at the same time.

Its overall structure owes much to TRAFFIC.  Discussing the film’s plot, at first glance, would take a Herculean effort on my part and would require me to be at my computer for days on end.  Instead, I will attempt to give you the Cliff Notes version.  The film has three basic subplots that sort of join together to create a singular narrative.  Firstly, we meet an experienced, gruff, and long-time CIA operative that has vast experience in the Middle East named Bob Barnes (played in an Oscar caliber turn by the unusually pudgy George Clooney), who tries to do the right thing but is instead shut out and stranded by his government when his peddling becomes and instant liability. 

The next subplot string deals with US oil companies, in this case the fictitious Connex and Killen.  These two business giants are merging at the film’s initial scene.  Killen is the smaller giant, but it has just recently acquired lucrative drilling rights to Kazakhstan, thus making it look very appealing to all other companies.  The great Chris Cooper – like he did earlier this fall in JARHEAD – has a brief, yet memorable cameo as the CEO of Killen, Jimmy Pope, a fiery Texan who looks like he sleeps with his money.  At the same time we are introduced to Bennett Holiday (in another chameleon-like performance by Jeffrey Wright) who plays a mediating lawyer to investigate the merger.  Overseeing all of this is Dean Whiting, who is a very well connected Washington lawyer.  He is played in a quietly commanding performance by Christopher Plummer and he does so with one of those falsely coy and smug smiles that you just want to slap off.

Finally, we have arguably the most intrinsically interesting plot threads that involves Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (in a great performance by Alexander Siddig), who is next in line to become Emir of his country (we are never sure where).  Prince Nasir does not just have dollar signs flashing in front of his eyes all of the time; he is a social and cultural reformist at heart who believes that he must do what is right for his people and country – in other words: defy the US.  He becomes a real target of his enemies, not to mention those with the real power in global politics.  The Prince also has troubles on the family front, as his younger brother Meshal (Akbar Kurtha) has strong political backing by those who don’t want Nasir to be in power after his father dies.

Whoops…I almost forgot fourth thread to the film, which just may be the most heart wrenching and sad.  There is Bryan Woodman (the always dependable Matt Damon) who is a trader that works in Geneva.  His role, and overall story arc, may just be the most difficult to break down and scrutinize.  At one point in the film his wife (Amanda Peet) and family are invited to spend some time at a party funded by the Oil Sheik that happens to be Nasir’s and Meshal’s father.  To make matters more complicated, his son dies in a terrible accident while at the party.  How does the Sheik repay Woodman back for his loss?  Well, with a $100 million dollar contract for his firm, of course.  Woodman, when presented with the offer, deadpans back, “How much for my other son?”  That line alone speaks volumes for the rest of the film.

SYRIANA has many important roles and characters, and it takes time to present them all to us and never feels the need to rush.  We relate easily to all of them, perhaps while trying to play connect-the-dots with them and try to uncover their allegiances, motives, and relationships to one another.  The plot has the indisputable aura of engulfing and grabbing even the most attentive viewer until he/she feels claustrophobic by its sheer labyrinthian structure.  Half way through the film I felt flabbergasted and confused.  By the end of the film, I left feeling - in retrospect - that those responses were the ultimate agenda of SYRIANA.  The film may completely overpower you and leave you scratching your head several times, but there is no denying its immersing power.  It drags you into its story of oil, money, traders, lawyers, big businesses, CIA operatives, spies, and Middle Eastern and US governments with so much resolve that you just can’t break away.

Gaghan’s film - if I was not aware that it was fictionalized with actors - almost plays like a lurid documentary.  This, no doubt, is a credit to his low-key and unobtrusive directorial style, not to mention the wealth of great performances in the film.  This is not a film of visual overkill or wickedly excessive flourishes of a director’s self-indulgence with the camera.  Instead, Gaghan films it simply with modest camera setups and with very little cocky, self-congratulatory superfluities.  Lesser directors would have let the style interfere with the substance of the story (recent directors indicted by myself on this principle is Tony Scott for the disastrous DOMINO).  Here, Gaghan lets the story play out for itself.  He’s like a neutral, third party behind the camera and the audience, in turn, feels like a voyeur sneaking in on conversations we should not be privy to.

The performances themselves are all uniformly fantastic.  First and foremost, there is Clooney, who transforms himself into the role of the disgruntled and ambivalent CIA operative (he gained 30 pounds for the role and sure looks the part).  He has many individual moments of soft-spoken power and vitality (Clooney, unlike other actors who don’t realize the strength of restraint, knows intuitively how to dial down a performance for increased effect).  However, I think that Jeffrey Wright and Matt Damon have the trickery roles.  Wright continues to demonstrate himself as one of the finest actors emerging in film of the last few years (just look at the variety of his resume – he was absolutely brilliant in this year’s problematic BROKEN FLOWERS as well as in completely different roles with different demands in the remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, ALI, ANGELS IN AMERICA, and SHAFT.  He plays his lawyer with a layer of resentment and crafty inquisitiveness.  Damon, on the other hand, has to play his role effectively on levels of ambiguity.  You are never really sure of his true intentions.

2005 has been a strong year for films with the tenacity to deal with tough, uncompromising subject matters.  There was the before mentioned CONSTANT GARDENER, as well as Paul Haggis’ CRASH from earlier in the year, a film that was frank and honest with modern-day race relations.  Now comes Stephen Gaghan’s SYRIANA, which sort of rounds off this trilogy of films that deal with bleak and troubling issues and creates a strong sense of urgency, relevance and haunting logic and pathos.  Perhaps the biggest conclusion that this riveting film allowed me to draw was the notion that governments do not “sleep with” big business but rather do what big business wants them to do.  This reality is a definitive mirror to contemporary, real-world politics and Gaghan does such a complete job of investigating it, dissecting it, and examining the dire consequences of it.  SYRIANA makes no claims to be simple and straightforward.  It’s 2005’s most demanding of films and it just may be one that instantly requires repeated viewings with further introspection.


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