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by craig   December 6, 2005

syriana starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon & Jeffrey Wright

A lesser man would title this review Syri-yawn-a. You can't imagine the temptation. It's biblical. It's Jesus-in-the-wilderness temptation.

OK. Let me see if I can get this straight. You might want to turn down the music, sit down, whatever helps you concentrate. Take a deep breath.

Bob (George Clooney, fat and bearded) is some sort of C.I.A. spook; he's in Tehran, selling missiles to some swarthy, vaguely menacing guys. But one missile doesn't go to the chap Bob thought he was selling to (and if you think that's, in any way, a plot spoiler, well, you're adorable). There's also an explosion, but never mind. Bob's concerned - understandably - about the missing missile. But no one back in Langley wants to hear about it. There's a powerful lobbying group (lots of old white guys in suits), called the Committee to Liberate Iran; they only want confirmation that Iran is primed to become a western-style democracy, presumably because that means money for American interests, especially oil, in Iran. They don't want to hear Bob's depressing prognostications. Bob's superiors send him on a new mission in Beirut to distract him from the missile, where he finds himself in a real mess. Could the game Bob thought he was playing be playing him instead?

In Washington DC, Bennett (Jeffrey Wright, bespectacled and mustachioed), a lawyer, is hired to investigate something. I'm not sure what, but it has to do with a proposed merger between two oil companies. The oil companies are salivating over the prospect of drilling in oil-rich Kazakhstan. One company won the bid and the other lost it, but still wants a piece of the action, hence the proposed merger, which would create the 24th largest economy in the world, or something. More guys in suits (Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Nelson, Christopher Plummer again, and a host of others) mutter, argue, make deals and congratulate themselves in board rooms, hotel rooms, and on private jets. Bennett spends most of the film looking mildly bewildered. Bennett's dad keeps showing up drunk at Bennett's house, but the two men never do more than grunt at each other.

In Geneva, Matt Damon's character (I never got his name, but it's Matt Damon, looking tan) is an analyst for a derivatives trading company who goes on TV sometimes and answers questions about world oil markets. A tragedy occurs; Damon finds himself suddenly ushered into the confidences of a young Saudi prince with progressive ideas about reforming the country. But progressive ideas don't mix well with Saudi fat cats or the big, oil-guzzling, 800-lb gorilla on their collective backs: America.

At the same time, in the Persian Gulf, hundreds of foreign (Pakistani, Indian, Afghani?) workers living and working in an oil field lose their jobs when control of the field passes from one company to another. And there is no other work anywhere. Two teenage boys watch American movies and try to figure out what to do. One has heard that the local Madrassa feeds their students skewers of lamb. "I like lamb," he says to his friend.

And I really wanted to like Syriana. I am the perfect audience for the film: liberal, pissed-off, reasonably well-informed, interested in politics and world events; the film tackles important, relevant subject matter and boasts such an A-list cast that even William Hurt can't get any decent screen time; plus I think George Clooney is so hot. I should have been an easy mark for Syriana's fan club. So what went wrong?

In short, writer/director Stephen Gaghan - who penned the terrific screenplay for Traffic - set his sights on so many juicy targets (the shamefully corrupt oil industry, black ops in the C.I.A., the co-dependent relationship between Saudi Arabia and America, the root causes of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, oil-C.I.A.-Washington-Saudi conspiracies, alcoholic fathers and their estranged sons) that he just can't manage to get a decent bead on any of them in a two-hour film. There are too many plots, too many locations (the film feels, at times, like a very expensive geography lesson), too much whispered exposition and too many characters for this hapless audience member. And I was taking notes. Here are some questions for Gaghan:

Who hired Bennett? Was it Christopher Plummer's character? If so, why? What's Bennett looking for? Who's the guy in the limo that takes him for a ride? What's the deal with Bennett's dad? In the Matt Damon subplot, is there some sabotage implied, or is it purely accidental? And am I crazy or was that a ghost, ala Sixth Sense, at the fountain with Damon and Peet? Why doesn't anyone want to hear about the missing missile? How does Bob (Clooney) find out what he finds out? And why, in the name of God, is he so fat?

And lastly, this, which I found scrawled on my notepad after the film: Who the fuck are these people?

Syriana aspires to be an important film about an important issue - perhaps the important issue of our time - but it, and the audience, get hopelessly lost along the way. Still, you have to admire its ambition. And there are some great moments. Unfortunately, we've already seen them all in the trailer: Clooney getting kidnapped, Damon typifying the worst of American sentiment when he glares at the prince and spits out, "You know what we think of you? We think, one hundred years ago, you were living in tents and chopping each other's heads off and we think that's where you'll be in another hundred years, so, yes, on behalf of my firm, I accept your money," Tim Blake Nelson bawling, "Corruption? Corruption is what keeps us safe!"

In the end, that's really what Syriana amounts too - a trailer's worth of pregnant, disturbing moments that punctuate an occasionally thrilling but mostly incoherent story that will leave you feeling dizzy but certain that big oil is corrupt and the Persian Gulf is one messed-up place. But then again, most of us knew that going in.

It's only fair to say that American film audiences owe Gaghan and Syriana a debt of gratitude for attempting a thriller than isn't about sexy serial killers, or egomaniacal terrorists with Slavic accents, or meteors headed directly for the earth, but the daily human and political costs of our insatiable hunger for oil. And with new revelations that, as early as February of 2001, senior executives of the country's biggest oil companies met with aides to Vice President Cheney to help shape the administration's energy policy, but denied knowledge of those meetings in testimony to the Senate Energy and Commerce committee in a appearance that was not required to be under oath (so as to prevent a potential perjury charge down the road), it's clear that we need to start asking just who is driving this bus. Syriana's producers were willing to do that; the floodgates are open. It's a start. Now, maybe someone will make a good movie about it.

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