Movie Review by Clyde Baehr
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, William Hurt
Director: Stephen Gaghan
It was inevitable SYRIANA would be likened to TRAFFIC the Steven Soderbergh directed film of Stephen Gaghan’s Oscar winning script. Both deal with a polluting commodity that destroys lives and fuels international corruption. Both are told in multiple interwoven narratives representing all aspects of the respective industries. On seeing the film it is clear it’s a companion piece. Shot in the same kinetic handheld camera, unafraid of subtitles and as serious as hell. It is Gaghan’s belief after all, that oil is the world’s crack addiction.
Dissecting the multi-billion dollar world of oil, and inspired by retired CIA agent Robert Baer’s memoirs SYRIANA sets out to highlight a problem we are all part of, by bringing to the fore the realities of an industry and commodity we take for granted.
When a middle eastern state signs an oil deal with China, US oil giant Connex is in trouble and quickly merges with Texan company Killen, which has secured drilling rights in Kazakhstan. The merger attracts the attention of the Justice Department who hire law firm Sloan Whiting to investigate. While ambitious attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) investigates, his boss Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) is secretly trying to undo Prince Nasir’s (Alexander Siddig) Chinese deal. Energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) exploits a personal tragedy to further his career and loyal, bearded and tubby CIA agent Bob Barnes (Clooney), one mission away from promotion, is tasked with the assassination of Prince Nasir.
As with TRAFFIC there are no villains, everyone in their own way is justified. Neither is there concern with party politics. Instead in its sights are the real fundamental issues of economies reliant on oil and western governments forced to concede or turn a blind eye to oil companies practices through its own necessity, of the middle east’s squandering of its money rather than investing in its people and future. Importantly the film is enjoyable cinema rather than a lecture, an intelligent film that doesn’t underestimate its viewers.
There are moments where the film sags under the weight of its own intellect but with the pace so sprightly these are soon behind us. Unusually for an ensemble film the emphasis is on actions rather than character. SYRIANA is formal, at odds with its visual style. A couple of stories suffer an emotional deficiency, Matt Damon’s analyst’s rise to success could be a bitterer pill and the plight of the unemployed migrant workers and their journey into extremism lacks drive without evidence of suffering. This is not to suggest SYRIANA is emotionally as barren as the landscape but on occasion a little too knowing and detached. But this is a small gripe in relation to its achievements.
SYRIANA not only deals with serious issues in a grown-up way but is immensely entertaining. It has the scope and grandeur one would normally expect of a blockbuster, crossing oceans and continents as easily as from one character to another. This is a triumph in film and one you have to see.