The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children. - Euripides Syriana: an imperialist attempt to remake a nation in one's own image, a reference to Syria's peacekeeping efforts from 1990-2005 in Lebanon.
Laura's Review: A-
When Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig, "Kingdom of Heaven") recognizes that his country is headed for disaster if the riches of its oil production are not capitalized upon, he urges his father to grant a bid for natural gas rights to China over the U.S. megagiant Connex. Meanwhile, upstart U.S. company Killen wins drilling rights in the newer region of Kazakhstan and Connex swoops in for a merger than will make it the 23rd largest economic force in the world. The U.S. Justice Dept. sends in Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright, "Broken Flowers") to sniff out suspected illegalities in Killen's dealings yet not jeopardize the oil company merger so desirable to U.S. interests while the CIA sends in one of its senior field agents, Robert Barnes (George Clooney, "Good Night, and Good Luck"), for the more lethal insurance of same in writer/director Stephen Gaghan's ("Abandon," "Traffic screenplay) "Syriana." Gaghan's ambitious film is so complex the viewer may never quite catch every little subplot, inference or character motivation, but it is a richly rewarding experience that provokes thoughtful meditation and, perhaps will spur some into well-informed action. What more could a political film hope to achieve (other than the almost demanded additional viewing or two)? "Syriana" is definitely not for the "I just wanna be entertained" crowd and yet it will work on that level as well for those willing to make the effort. With seventy speaking parts (including George Clooney mouthing Farsi) and locations across the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, "Syriana" features intertwining story threads like Gaghan's "Traffic" and is even more difficult to sum up, but Gaghan uses an elegant theme of fathers and sons which make each separate strand relatable. Bob Barnes thinks he's a strong contributor to his country and his job and looking forward to the comfy desk job the CIA owes him as he puts his son Robby (Max Minghella, "Bee Season") through college. We meet him on a mission in Tehran where he assassinates arms dealers but also loses a missile to a mysterious third party. His bosses Fred Franks (Tom McCarthy, "The Station Agent") and Marilyn Richards (Viola Davis, 2002's "Solaris") are not interested in the rogue weapon as much as they are in having Bob take out Prince Nasir, a man they see as an evil anti-American. When Bob's inside man (Mark Strong, 2005's "Oliver Twist") subverts his last mission (and tortures him in an excruciatingly brutal scene), Fred and Marilyn spin the situation by scapegoating Bob. Both his and his missing missile's ends are painfully ironic. Bennett carefully works his way through a nest of vipers, beginning with his boss, Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer, "Must Love Dogs"), who cautions him that the man he will be working with, Connex counsel Sydney Hewitt (Nicky Henson, "Vera Drake") has worked through six assistants, but that maybe Bennett will be the lion who looks like a sheep. As Bennett weaves through a political minefield while also dealing with an alcoholic father (William Charles Mitchell), Whiting leans on Nasir's father, an aging Emir, to pass his kingdom onto his younger son Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha, "Esther Kahn"), a pampered playboy who would act as a U.S. puppet. Whiting's actions could be the foundation of an Osama Bin Laden in the alienated Nasir, a well intentioned and educated man of his people. Nasir finds a surprising ally and advisor in Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon, "The Brothers Grimm"), an energy analyst from Geneva who is honored to attend a lavish gala at the Emir's Spanish estate. Bryan brings his wife Julie (Amanda Peet, "A Lot Like Love") and sons Max and Riley but the little holiday is cut dead in its tracks when his eldest is electrocuted in the Emir's pool, the victim of an electrical short in an underwater security camera, one of the types of lavish toys which delight the Emir. When Nasir offers Bryan's firm a $75 million contract, the young father is disgusted by the implication which in turn goads him into speaking his mind, offering Nasir novel solutions. The men find mutual respect and Bryan hides from his grief, transferring his family commitment to Nasir instead. And finally Wasim (Mazhar Munir) is a Pakistani who is unceremoniously laid off from his job in the oil fields when the Chinese win their bid. Unlike his more accepting father Saleem Ahmed Kahn (Shahid Ahmed), Wasim is angered by the cruel treatment afforded them, especially after they are beaten by guards for daring to talk in a deportation line. Wasim and his friend Farooq (Sonnell Dadral, "Shaun of the Dead") are ripe for the recruitment of a Muslim fundamentalist, the man who made off with Bob's missile in Tehran. And I haven't even mentioned important characters, like Killen Oil owner Jimmy Pope ("Chris Cooper, "Jarhead"), Texas oilman Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson, "Meet the Fockers"), Connex Chairman Lee Janus (Peter Gerety, "Hollywood Ending"), Asst. Attorney General Donald Farish (David Clennon, "Silver City") and Bob's retired CIA buddy Stan Goff (William Hurt, "A History of Violence"). The cast is first rate, but a true ensemble where each contributes to the whole. One almost wonders why Clooney went through the physical transformation for this role, his full beard distracting from the thirty pound weight gain, until we realize the extra girth uncovered in his torture scene gives credence to his identity as an old hand ready to hang things up. FOC (friend of Clooney) Damon is intelligent and assured, believable spinning the high level language of an economist. Siddig is also noteworthy as the forward thinking royal. Wright proves his chameleon-like ability in a role that is as far away from his "Basquiat" debut or "Shaft's" Peoples Hernandez as is possible to travel. Mazhar Munir is every bit as affecting in his acting debut as the leads of his story's similarly themed "Paradise Now." Gaghan's script (which was suggested by both research done for "Traffic" and the "See No Evil" book by former CIA guy Robert Baer) dives right in, beginning with Bob's murky dealings in Tehran, and leaves us to figure out who all these Arabs and politicians and oil men are and what they mean to each other. His dialogue sparkles without being unnatural, the words of insightful men voicing their view of the elephant like the blind men of the fable ('corruption keeps us nice and warm'). Like "Traffic," the story jumps back and forth (editing by Tim Squyres, "Hulk") with a hand-held, documentary camera style (cinematography by FOC Robert Elswit, "Good Night, and Good Luck") more straightforward than the tints and textures employed by Soderbergh, but while it may be initially disorienting, it does eventually all fall into place, the dots connected in plenty of time for the impact of its devastating final act to be felt. "Syriana" is a sobering reflection of our post 9/11 world and how efforts to control natural energy resources have far reaching and disastrous effects.
Robin's Review: B-
Yoav (Tom Mercier) was born in Israel but, deep down in his heart, he knows he is really French through and through. He vows to forgo speaking Hebrew and buys a one-way ticket to Paris and arms with what will be his ever-ready French-Israeli dictionary. Once there, he faces cold, hunger and homelessness but he is undaunted in being French in “Synonyms.” This reflective autobiography by director and co-writer Nadav Lapid (with co-scribe Haim Lapid) is not the kind of narrative storytelling that will be immediately embraced by the viewer. But, there are some aspects in this tale of delusion and self-importance that peaks some interest. The story, basically, is about a young Israeli man trying to get away from his past life, and embrace a chosen new one, only to have that past thrust in his face every day. On his very first day in Paris, he goes to an empty, cold and unheated apartment. But, as he showers, someone breaks in a steals all of Yoav meager possessions and money. Naked, cold and all alone, he sleeps in the bathtub and almost freezes. Welcome to France. A well-to-do neighbor couple, Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevillote) find the unconscious Yoav, take him in and nurse him back to health. The give him clothes, a coat, a cell phone and money and take the refugee under their protective wing. Instead of being the strong and capable Neo-Frenchman, Yoav, without realizing it, becomes an object to be manipulated by his benefactors. The story is about Yoav coming to face what his life really is – and it is not what he ever imaged. The title, “Synonyms,” comes from Yoav’s constant poring through his French-Israeli dictionary and reciting all the synonymous words that he learns – most are negative. The story, with that in mind, is about a delusional young man who cannot see the difference between his dreams of Frenchness and the reality of being an immigrant with scant chance of living his dreams.