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.
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.
Oil makes the world go around and Academy Award winner Stephen Gaghan explores the energy industry from the highest levels of government and business to the lowest level of the migrant oil worker in his world-hopping sophomore directing effort, “Syriana.”
Gaghan, who won the screenplay Oscar for his adapted script for “Traffic,” takes on even bigger fish with Syriana.” Using former CIA operative Robert Baer’s biography, See No Evil, Gaghan commands an international cast in locations around the world for his look into the machinations of the high-profit energy business.
Syriana” is a complex and complicated film that, if you give it the attention it deserves, tells an epic story that deals with corruption, political brokering, espionage, assassination, terrorism, life on several levels and more.
Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is an aging CIA station agent working the Middle East and, after one more job ordered by his handlers, will be moving into a cushy desk job in Washington. Bob has always believed in his work, seeing it as his own little contribution in defending democracy. His last assignment is the assassination of Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) but things go thoroughly awry and Bob is hung out to dry by his CIA bosses. His world is turned upside down and things like his son’s college tuition shrink in importance as Bob tries to right the wrongs he unknowingly committed.
Prince Nasir is the heir apparent to the Emir of an oil rich Gulf Coast country where the rulers make deals with the western corporations and governments then squander the money on collecting the best, most expensive toys in the world. Nasir is a progressive thinker and wants to use the wealth to improve his country and make a better life for its people - instead of selling the precious oil and natural gas to Western corporations that make billions in profits refining and distributing. But, this plan is neither in the best interest for the Emir nor the energy manipulators who are making the huge profits. Nasir’s father (Nadim Sawalha) announces that younger brother, Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurth), will assume the throne.
Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is a smart, ambitious energy analyst living with his wife, Julie (Amanda Peet), and their two sons in Geneva. Bryan has some progressive ideas about the oil industry but lacks the confidence to put them forth. He and his family are invited to a swank party on one of the Emir’s posh estates but tragedy strikes when one of his many toys malfunctions, killing Bryan’s young son. The calamity splinters the broken family and Bryan becomes more distant from Julie.
But, the catastrophe has positive results when Bryan approaches Prince Nasir and they learn that they are of a like mind. The analyst has the know-how to help the prince fulfill his vision of a better country for his people but the current status quo is a formidable barrier to overcome.
Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is an up and coming lawyer at prestigious law firm of Sloan Whiting assigned to guide a merger of two energy giants, Connex and Killen, while assisting the Justice Department in its investigation of Killen. Bennett’s job is to cooperate with the investigation while making sure that nothing screws up the multi-billion dollar deal. He also has to contend with and care for his alcoholic and disapproving father (William C. Mitchell).
Bennett’s boss, Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), is working on the highest levels to sour a lucrative deal that Prince Nasir made with the Chinese, now a major contender for the energy resources the Western corporations have so jealously guarded.
At the other end of the economic spectrum are two migrant Connex workers, Saleem Ahmed Kahn (Shahid Ahmed) and his son, Wasim (Mazhar Munir), Palestinians imported to work the oil fields for their cheap labor. The oil workers are mere pawns in the energy business and they suddenly lose their jobs – and their only hope – when Connex shuts down the operation because of the sale to China. Old Saleem puts his faith in Allah that all will be well but Wasim is attracted to the radical fundamentalists. He and his friend, Farooq (Sonnell Dadral), fall under the spell of a blue-eyed Egyptian with a Stinger missile and plans to use it – with Wasim and Farooq as the sacrificial lambs.
Stephen Gaghan proved his writing mettle with his Oscar-worthy and winning screenplay for “Traffic,” deftly intertwining three separate stories about the illicit drug business in the Americas. Multiple players, varied locations and several levels of angst made for a complex story. Gaghan, the writer, does it again, this time directing, too, with “Syriana.”
As you can see with the barebones descriptions of the film’s principle characters, there is a lot going on in “Syriana.” Each of these multiple stories has its own distinct thread but Gaghan weaves them together as one story converges on another, sometimes joining and sometimes just giving a glancing blow. As the characters are introduced there is a lot of information on international energy deals and huge profits, political intrigue and immersion into foreign cultures that require the viewer to pay attention or become lost. But, Gaghan does a superb job of keeping things clear and focused as the stories play out.
The sense of the few “haves” to the multitudes of have nots” is skillfully handled in the guises of the Emir and his equally shallow son, Prince Meshal, who represent the oil-rich families that squander away their country’s wealth on bigger and better toys and mansions instead of helping their people. The other end of this spectrum is rep’d by Wasim and his father as they struggle to survive in a world they can’t control. This dramatic difference in life styles proves to be a catalyst that, literally, ignites.
The wheeling and dealing by the corporate heads and their phalanx of attorneys is delved into as we see that bigger profits are more important than providing affordable energy to the people of the world. These movers and shakers will stop at nothing, including CIA involvement and assassination, to keep control of the world’s energy resources.
In an almost impossible feat by the director, Gaghan, and his enormous cast, the many characters playing in Syriana” are all fully developed and believabhle. George Clooney gained 30 pounds and grew a bushy beard to play the role of Bob Barnes. The handsome Clooney, with these changes, removes the glamour of his movie star persona and puts himself deeply into his conflicted character. The always-dependable Jeffrey Wright sinks himself into Bennett Holiday, showing the man’s ruthless ambition while tempering the character with the side story involving his father.
Matt Damon brings a convincing performance out of his character, Bryan Woodman, at first shown as a loving husband and father and ambitious energy analyst then, with the loss of his son, as a torn and troubled man that wants to try to change the world. As do the other characters, Woodman has a strong arc of development from start to finish. Alexander Siddig, as progressive Prince Nasir, brings out the humanity of the man and real desire to affect change for his people. The other players may not have the screen time of the principles but each provides a rounded performance. Christopher Plummer, Amanda Peet, Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Nelson, William Hurt, Mazhar Munir and the rest do a solid job in fleshing out the background into a real world.
The production spanned the globe from Dubai to Geneva to London and the American southwest (filling in for the Arabian desert). This international backdrop helps to give the story an exciting, fast pace as lenser Robert Elswit, using a pair of hand-held cameras, captures these images in a quasi-documentary way, conveying the realistic air sought by Gaghan. Costuming, by Louise Frogley, is opulent, especially with the grand robes of the Emir and his followers. Production design, by Dan Weil, is definitely up to the task of showing the many different worlds of Syriana.” Editing, by Tim Squires, is notable by not call attention to itself and giving the film an evenly structured flow.
Stephen Gaghan doesn’t try to explain everything that is going on, allowing the viewer to decide who is good, bad or in shades of gray. He has leaped above his directorial debut, the throw away thriller, Abandon,” and, with “Syriana,” knocks on the door of formidable filmmakers. And, I think they’ll let him in. I give it an A.
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