I suppose you could call Syriana the second in a relatively new film genre. It and Traffic are large serious ensemble projects that examine intractable issues. They attract big stars who are willing to take small parts in order to be involved in something important. The common element in both films is Steven Gaghan who wrote the screenplay for Traffic and directed Syriana.

The plot of Syriana is kicked off by the oldest son of a Middle East potentate who awards a lucrative oil contract to the Chinese. This puts American interests as well as the success of the a mega merger in the oil industry at risk. I won’t spoil the rest of it.

The plot is supposed to be murky and, from what I’ve read, deliberately incomprehensible, reflecting the complicated world of international corporate intrigue, which forces people to act with incomplete information, often against their own best interests. That was the intention. What they got was part thriller, part documentary on the evils of globalization. And it’s a dark message too. Is everybody in the oil business really this compromised? People like us are never really going to know. Syriana is effective at manipulating emotions and audience sympathies but ultimately it’s unsatisfying. The narrative veneer is so thin you can see the earnest ideological framework. Syriana is no Traffic.

But let’s concentrate on what’s good here: the performances. The highest profile of all these supporting roles is George Clooney as Bob Barnes, an aging CIA agent that nobody seems terribly happy with. Clooney packed on a few pounds and grew a large salt and pepper beard, all of which resulted in an Oscar. He is a good actor, however, and plays this role with convincing paranoia.

Matt Damon plays Bryan Woodman, naive oil company executive who is trying to put together a large deal and convince the Middle Eastern leaders he’s dealing with to do the right thing.

Also in this remarkable cast is Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, William Hurt, and as a Star Trek fan, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Alexander Siddig.

Syriana is a passable effort, entertaining but far from perfect.


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May 2006
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