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00627 – SYRIANA

Movie-Hype00627 – SYRIANA

I used to live with several ex-military pilots. They were a different breed, often privy to conspiracy information—or at least speculation—not found in the general public. One favorite theory was this: the United States—maybe even all of the West—has a long-term plan regarding the Middle East.

Drain the region of oil. Completely. Put up with whatever you have to –price gauging, fanatical politics, endless strife—and get all the oil out. Once accomplished, the region loses its funding, and without money all the other problems magically disappear, and they go back to the 19th Century: backwards, unimportant; forgotten. The Middle East is no longer a threat, no longer a power, no longer anything.

I never bought this theory. Oh, I believe politicians could be Machiavellian and venal enough to employ it, and it’s even possible that the plan is high up enough and goes beyond party politics that people who knew would keep quiet. What I couldn’t imagine were the politicians with enough foresight to develop a policy that wouldn’t pay dividends for 50-80 years. Or, put more crassly: would a politician do something that wouldn’t pay off politically for him?

However, I think intelligent people can admit that virtually nobody understands the global oil picture, at least in its entirety, and there are pressures and forces at work bigger than any one person, company, government or even nation.

Movies like SYRIANA make me reconsider; maybe my pilot buddies were on to something: there is a conspiratorial plan underway to ruin the Middle East by taking their oil.

Or maybe the truth is a whole lot worse.

A movie like SYRIANA attempts to tell the most complicated of stories, where there are many different players involved, often with murky, multiple and conflicting agendas. From that, it is only natural the movie itself would be very complicated. It is.

I was unsurprised to learn that writer/director is Stephen Gaghan, the same scribe who brought us the Academy Award-winning TRAFFIC. The movie featured multiple narratives on several fronts, all concerning the labyrinth that is the International Drug Trade.

The Oil business is if anything more Byzantine, and there will be times when you’re not sure what is going on. Are you one of those people ho has to understand everything you’re watching right that second, or can you enjoy the movie as it plays, without every I dotted and T crossed, confident things will pull together in the end?

Let me put it another way: SYRIANA is not a popcorn flick. It’s a thinking person’s movie. At times I wasn’t sure what the characters were doing or why. (Although: to my credit, I don’t think the characters did either, so maybe it was on purpose.) I never felt lost, though. I also never felt lectured, preached or talked down to.

I suppose it’s tempting to see SYRIANA as an indictment on Big Oil, or the U.S. government. That’s too easy an answer. Some might also see SYRIANA as an expose on the avarice and hypocrisy of leaders in the Middle East. All of that is there and more, but SYRIANA’S real power is shedding light on how interdependent the world really is. We live in a world of nations and regions, but business knows no orders. Demand will breach any wall, and find Supply waiting.


Suspension of Disbelief: 0. There’s nothing here even remotely implausible.

Genre Grade: Multinational Thriller; A

Sex/Violence: There is a scene of torture, but I would say high school and above could (and probably should) see it.

If you liked: TRAFFIC, you’ll love this.

POLITICAL RAMIFICATIONS: For sure this isn’t a rah-rah flag-waiving G.I. Joe kind of movie, although it’s not just liberal screed, either. The film doesn’t really pay lip service to any position, and doesn’t take sides. It is what it is, and it’s not changing. If SYRIANA raises consciousness for some folk, that’s a good thing.

Pantheon Percentile: Very watchable, and not likely to be outdated soon. 91.

I won’t attempt to summarize the plot even a little, but will simply say that it’s well laid out and clearly and compellingly presented. It’s fictional to be sure, but if you don’t thinks those types of events happen, I marvel at your naïveté.

The acting is brilliant, a host of characters highlighted by people we depend on for stellar work—Christopher Plummer and Chris Cooper, for example—and other less well known who are just as solid. Two standout supporting roles are turned in my Matt Damon and Jeffrey Wright. Both play intelligent wolves in sheep’s clothing. Both underplay the emotion involved beautifully, which I think is much harder than emoting, but because of the Academy’s penchant for the big “showy” scenes, both will probably be overlooked for Oscar nominations. More’s the pity.

If there is a “lead,” it is played by George Clooney. He’s paunchy, beaten-down, even timid. He’s very smart and skilled at what he does, but in another way utterly clueless. I didn’t know Clooney could drop that “cool” veneer, but does, and turns in his best work ever. An Oscar nomination would be warranted for him. (As it would for the script, the directing, and possibly even Best Picture.)

If you had to boil down SYRIANA to 4 words: There’s not enough oil. 8 words: there’s not enough oil and everybody wants it. 20 words: There’s not enough oil, everybody wants it, they’ll do what it takes to get it and you’re complicitly involved.

This last try goes beyond SYRIANA’S scope, but seems to me an inescapable extrapolation. Right now oil is everything. There’s a line in the movie where a character says China’s economy isn’t growing fast because they flat out can’t get enough oil. Oil is not only consumed but facilitates production. And we’re all involved. I got to the movie theatre to watch the film with the help of oil. You are reading this review with the help of oil.

It’s easy to criticize Big Oil, and moan about gas prices and feel all self-righteous doing it. But what are you willing to give up? Your computer? Your TV? Your car? Your house?

When you start answering those questions, you start to see just how big a deal oil is, and while not excusing atrocities, it at least explains in part why things are done the way they are.

SYRIANA is the best example yet of a movie trying to show just that.

December 18, 2005

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