Sunday, December 11, 2005


Where oil is power

Spot the good guy!

Stephen Gaghan's Syriana probably has the mother of all complicated plots I've ever seen in a movie. It can in some ways be considered the oily brother of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic which Gaghan wrote the screenplay for. While the latter was about the war on drugs, this one is about the war for oil, about what some people will do for oil and how oil is the black God of power in the world, whether we like it or not.

The movie revolves around four basic sub-plots each of which is connected to one or more of the others. An American oil company, Connex, which has just lost drilling rights in a Middle Eastern country to "the Chinese", wants to merge with another American company, Killen, which has just been awarded rights in Kazakhstan. A Washington attorney, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is hired by Connex to discover if there is anything shady about Killen that could affect the merger. Two Pakistani men, oil workers for Connex in the Middle East are laid off from their jobs due to the Chinese takeover, making them susceptible to extremist Islamic ideas.

Meanwhile, reform minded Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the one who sold the drilling rights to the Chinese ("They were the highest bidder!", he mentions indignantly) finds American pressure is making his father, the Emir, pass the crown to his younger, pro-Western, brother. Matt Damon plays an energy analyst in Geneva whose son is drowned by accident during a party at the Emir's residence and finds his company awarded business opportunities as an apology, much to the chagrin of his wife who (rightly) feels that their son's life has been traded for money. Further, realizing that Damon shares his reformist notions, Prince Nasir hires him as a financial advisor.

And finally, finally, we come to George Clooney's character, Bob Barnes, a CIA agent whom you would find in the dictionary under the entry "grizzled veteran", finding himself sold out by his superiors after a botched assasination job on Prince Nasir. It is difficult to call Clooney the hero of this picture, though he is certainly the biggest name in there. In truth, there is no hero in this one, good seems to be a relative state, as the wanton hunger for oil supercedes every other consideration.

Clooney, though, clearly played his heart out for this role, reportedly gaining 30 pounds to become the beefy Barnes. This weight gain proved to be tragic during filming for him where repeated takes of a gruesome torture sequence caused him to injure his spine, requiring surgery and medication. While he certainly is at the very heart of the picture, it is Prince Nasir who IS the heart. His well-written role of an idealistic reformer with the odds stacked against him gives him plenty of good lines which he delivers like he belives in them! Look into his big round eyes and you WILL believe!

One of the movie's strong points is an amazing feel of realism. There is a great scene where some Pakistani oil workers are playing cricket and a god-awful batsman swings hard and misses each time! There is also a recurring theme of father-son relationships going bad, seeming to suggest the greed for oil undermines the most basic values. What is also suggested is the utter helplessness of the characters involved when the decisons are made by a higher power and disparate events are connected to each other in unimaginable ways; you become a pawn against your will and knowledge! The higher power could be the extremist leaders, the heads of oil companies or superiors at the CIA! Oil comes first; everything else is second. And that is the message of Syriana!

NOTE: I looked up the meaning of "Syriana" in an online encyclopedia and here is what came up:

Pax Syriana: (Latin for "Syrian peace", modelled after "Pax Romana" and "Pax Britannica") refers to a time of relative peace in Lebanon maintained by Syrian hegemony and enforced by the Syrian army. The term may also be used negatively to refer to Syria's imperialist ambitions in Lebanon.

I take it that in this movie it refers to illusions of propriety created by those working for oil-interests.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent and accurate review of the movie...although i have to say that in my opinion the hero of the movie was prince nasir with his determination to do what was right for his nation. and on some level bob attempted to redeem himself in the end...:)

8:47 PM  

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