AK’s Movie Reviews: Syriana

“A movie is not about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it.”
-Roger Ebert

I quote another critic to begin my review of Syriana because I found myself thinking about these words as I watched the film. Initially, this is a very confusing movie. The first act involves characters discussing many details behind closed doors. They are discussing the nature and business of oil and particular the way the United States does business with oil overseas. I don’t understand the oil business, I don’t understand economic consultation, I don’t understand how the Iranian government works, I don’t understand much about law in general and I don’t understand business schemes.

All of these things are talked about in great detail through the first 20 to 30 minutes of this film, but the details are not relevant. The way they are presented is what’s relevant. The oil industry and particularly the relationship that the United States has with the Middle East in regards to the oil industry is confusing in general and what Stephen Gaghan presents in Syriana is not the facts but the consequences. The politics of oil ruins more lives than it benefits.

Several different characters are introduced in the opening passages of the film. We meet Bob Barnes (George Clooney) a government employee who has certainly been involved with the dealing of illegal weapons and assasinations, though who exactly it is he works for isn’t quite obvious. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an employee at an oil firm who becomes cheif economic consultant to an Iranian prince and on the verge of striking a major deal for his firm.

Bennett Holliday (Jeffrey Wright), a lawyer with a different law firm, looking to strike them a huge deal, but needing to take down others in the process. And two Iranian princes, one looking to profit greatly off selling oil to the Chinese, the other looking to establish a democracy in Iran that benefits the people.

Motivations for the different characters come and go and to reveal them would be a mistake as it would reveal many of the films surprises. Movies with casts this large could go wrong in focusing too much on one star, or skipping over connections that may exist between certain people or ignoring plot points in general. Syriana makes none of these mistakes. The connections between people are often vague but always realized. The way that certain people will take an action that can have a consequence on someone else is VERY obvious. And the film refuses to be in awe of any star power it might have.

George Clooney has been billed as the lead in this film, and while he is the biggest star he doesn’t necessarily have the biggest part and certainly has one of the least glamorous. Clooney looks old, tired, worn out and out of shape. His performance is a masterful piece of subtlety. This is man who has tried to spend his entire life lying to people about what he does for a living and has reached the point where he’s too tired to explain himself anymore.

The acting in the film is effective in general because it’s crucial that we feel for these characters in order to appreciate the events that happen to them. While we don’t necessarily learn a lot of details about their lives, we see hard working people with families struggling to accomplish something with their lives. The plight is something that can be easily recognized even if the business isn’t.

The film is shot in a very unique, pseudo documentary visual style. That it was written and produced by the same group of people that made the film Traffic isn’t that surprising. There is a different color tone for each climate. Iran looks very warm, with bright whites standing out vividly onscreen. The East Coast looks very cold, dark and grey. The offices where the men of power conduct their business are often cluttered, creating a sense of claustrophobia despite being in a vast space. The characters move in and out of these environments to conduct their business. What they are doing is different, but how they impact one another is truly what matters.

What can be learned from the film which I can give away here without spoilers? A few things. Wealthy American businessmen have control of the oil industry in the Middle East, and their interaction with equally wealthy rulers in that region of the world helps dictate how much they can get away with. There are expendable employees in the companies these men work for. There are expendable employees that work directly for the government as far as the oil business is concerned. The working conditions of men who work for the oil companies overseas are so poor that it often leads to involvement with cults and terrorism for lack of anything better to do.

In the hands of bad filmmakers this film could have gone very wrong in many different ways. It could have been leaning too far to the left or the right, it could have skipped over plot points, it could have spent too long explaining itself, it could have tried to focus more on the details than the events surrounding them, but Syriana doesn’t do any of those things.

It is both an well made thriller and an intelligent meditation on our current political climate. There is a lot of talk about oil in the film, but oil is the McGuffin. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the lengths that people go to in order to acquire oil and Syriana understands this. This is one of the best films made this year.

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