The bottom line is that thereís not enough oil in the world and everybody wants to make sure they get as much as they can. The political, social, and economic ramifications of this fact are staggering. Getting the oil means that countries who want oil form unlikely relationships with other countries who have oil. It means that corrupt tactics will be used in its acquisition. It can, in some cases, mean war or death. Syriana is an ensemble movie with a handful of interconnecting stories that deal with the worldís oil situation. Like Traffic (which dealt with the war on drugs) and Crash (which dealt with racial tension), it looks at a topical issue from every possible angle.
At the center of the story is Emir Hamad Al-Subaai, the leader of an oil-rich Gulf nation. He is about to step down, which means that one of his two sons will become the new Emir. Prince Meshal is more politically traditional, while Prince Nasir is more reform minded. Both young men want to become the leader of their nation. The world waits eagerly for word of who will take over. Various parties Ė the U.S. government, a high-powered law firm that represents a major American oil company Ė even try to influence the outcome. They donít care which prince is better for the country; they only care about which one is more likely to give America its oil.
Meanwhile, an assortment of other characters operates on the fringes of this delicate situation. Jeffrey Wright plays Bennett Holiday, an attorney investigating the merger of two Texas oil companies. The smaller one, Killen, has inexplicably (and perhaps illegally) gained rights to drill in Kazakhstan; the larger one, Connex, wants to buy Killen in order to get those rights. Chris Cooper plays the owner of Killen, who doesnít like all this investigating, and Christopher Plummer plays the head of the law firm that Holiday works for. Heís also a member of the CLI (Committee to Liberate Iran), so he has very strong feelings about who should and should not have oil rights. It is amazing that a lawyer could (and probably, in real life, does) have enough power to meet with a foreign leader to influence the future oil situation.
Other characters include: an energy analyst (Matt Damon) who makes a lucrative deal for his company after his son dies in an accident at the Emirís residence; a Pakistani migrant worker (Mazhar Munir) who is laid off from his job in the Connex oil fields and subsequently joins a radical organization; and a veteran CIA agent named Bob Barnes (George Clooney), who isnít sure which side he should be on anymore.
Syriana is clearly a movie with a lot on its mind, some of which is very interesting. I liked how the film showed the diversity of people Ė oilmen, lawyers, politicians, CIA operatives Ė who all collide on the playing board of the world oil game. Of all the subplots, the most compelling is the one featuring Bob Barnes. The film suggests the United States orders the assassination of those who might prevent us from getting oil. Bob is ordered to arrange the assassination of Prince Nasir, but fails, and suddenly it seems as though his own government is using him as a pawn. Whether this kind of thing actually occurs is not for me to say; however, Syriana makes it clear that this is a dog-eat-dog situation where anyone is potentially expendable. Some of the ideas here are explosive.
And letís face it: if youíre going to make a movie about this subject, it should have the courage to be explosive. Unfortunately, Syriana, for all its thematic bravery, proves to be a very off-putting viewing experience. To do this subject justice, you have to make things very clear for the audience. The big ideas are no good if the viewer doesnít understand them. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan also wrote Traffic, which had a similar multi-layered approach to hot topic subject matter. That film juggled several complex storylines but did so in a way that was relatively easy to comprehend. Syriana is not as straightforward. The film throws so much information at you so quickly and so relentlessly that itís easy to become overwhelmed.
So is it the fault of the moviegoer for not understanding, or is it the fault of the movie for daring to be challenging? While I admire Gaghanís desire to challenge us, I also believe that the storyís lack of clarity is a flaw in the moviemaking. Letís put it this way: I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent person with a decent laymanís knowledge of the world oil situation. Despite this, I was hopelessly lost watching Syriana. The director cuts back and forth between subplots too quickly; as a result, Syriana never stays with any subplot long enough for you to register exactly whatís going on. Instead of cutting away to something else every two minutes, the movie should have held on to its scenes a little longer, allowing us to absorb the implications of each plot thread. I understand that ambiguity is an inherent part of this topic, but when weíre being forced to rush from one thing to another like a pinball, it becomes disorienting, like a never-ending game of catch-up.
Apparently the studio knew this was a problem. Prior to the release of Syriana, the local publicist for Warner Bros. Pictures e-mailed me a cheat sheet that contained thumbnail descriptions of the major characters and companies in the film. This information helped me keep the players straight, but didnít help me understand the connections between the various things that were going on. What is the average paying moviegoer who doesnít have a cheat sheet to do? For example, Bennett Holiday finishes his investigation, but what exactly did he discover and how did he discover it? Iím sure the answer is in there somewhere, but it got lost in the slew of names, facts, and plot points being thrown around. Sometimes the film explains things long after confusion has already set in. When Barnes is captured and tortured, weíre not sure why his tormenter (who appeared to be a collaborator) has taken him. Later on, someone makes a quick comment about that person switching allegiances. If you donít pick up on that line of dialogue, it would never make sense at all. The whole movie plays like this.
As I sit here thinking back on Syriana, I find myself getting excited about the filmís ambition and scope. Those are positive qualities worth celebrating. But I also remember the frustration I felt as I sat in my seat, trying to keep all the plotís plates spinning at the same time. I walked out of the theater feeling pissed off; I wanted to love Syriana and I probably would have if it had eased up a little bit. Although my review of Syriana is mixed, I might recommend seeing it on DVD, where you can pause and rewind as needed to clarify things. Trying to see it in a theater Ė where you donít have that advantage Ė is often as perplexing as trying to read and understand a thick legal document while under a time crunch.
( 1/2 out of four)
Syriana is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.
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