Warner Bros. // 2005 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // May 10th, 2007
"You know what the business community thinks of you? They think that 100 years ago you were living out here in tents in the desert chopping each other's heads off, and that's where you'll be in another hundred years."
What do you get when you take the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Traffic and set him loose on adapting and directing a book about the Middle Eastern experiences of former CIA operative Robert Baer? Well...you get a film that's a lot like Traffic, that's what. Not that there's anything wrong with that...
Bob Barnes (George Clooney, Ocean's Eleven) is an aging CIA operative. Unfit for Washington work due to his tendency to say what he thinks instead of the party line, he winds up back "on the ground" in Beirut, tasked with eliminating an emir's son, Prince Nasir al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), whom the Agency views as unfriendly to U.S. interests. But one of his former allies in Beirut has gone Iranian on him -- and betrays (and tortures) him. The CIA moves quickly to abandon him to his own devices, and to an FBI investigation, in order to deflect attention away from their secret purposes. Bob has to get to the bottom of the double-cross -- which means getting to, and possibly saving the life of, Prince Nasir.
Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright, Casino Royale) is an attorney for a prestigious Washington, DC law firm. His current job involves one of the firm's biggest clients, Connex Oil. Connex was aced out of a big oil deal by the Chinese, who curried favor with Prince Nasir and got the deal. In response, they bought out a smaller company, Killen, that had just landed a gargantuan deal to exploit the Tengiz Field in Kazakhstan. Holiday's task is to find any of the dirt relating to the Tengiz deal before the Justice Department does. And dirt he finds, in the form of a number of blatantly fraudulent transactions authorized by Killen executive Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), which had the effect of lining the pockets of certain Kazakhstani politicians. If he can find the trail of breadcrumbs here, then the Justice Department surely will as well -- and that could lead to the FTC's rejection of the merger.
Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon, Rounders) is a Geneva-based economic analyst and investment advisor. He's sent by his firm to a party hosted by Emir Hamed al-Subaai (Nadim Sawalha) to attempt to persuade the Emir to retain them for investment services. At the party, Woodman's young son is killed in a tragic accident. The Emir, through his son Prince Nasir, later makes an unsubtle attempt to pay off Woodman for his loss. Woodman's pointed comments to the Prince somehow lead to his becoming Nasir's economic advisor. Nasir loves his country, and wants it to prosper -- even if prosperity isn't in the best interests of the United States.
Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir) is a young Pakistani working as a migrant oil worker in the Persian Gulf. Laid off as a result of the Connex/Killen merger, he and his slightly goofy father Saleem (Shahid Ahmed, 28 Weeks Later) struggle to find work and avoid deportation. They turn to an Islamic school for food, education, and -- most importantly -- hope. An imam in the school sees desperation in Wasim, and recruits him to a greater cause: spreading the true faith through action. Specifically, action involving the man-portable anti-aircraft missile that certain people had purchased from certain other people who had purchased it from a CIA operative, Bob Barnes.
Everything is connected.
It's arguably impossible to capture the complexities of the Middle East in one film. Syriana comes close. It's a film that challenges your preconceptions about oil, terrorism, Islam, and the intersection of the three. Perfectly cast, wonderfully shot, and spectacularly acted, it's just like...a Steve Soderbergh film. And that's ultimately the biggest (and only) problem with Syriana -- it feels like we've seen this film before, back when it was called Traffic.
Of course that's no accident: Syriana is written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his screen adaptation of the BBC's miniseries Traffik. Gaghan's sophomore effort as writer/director was much more successful than his debut, 2002's Abandon, mainly because he apparently learned a thing or two from Soderbergh. Like, for example, everything. If you presented Syriana as a Soderbergh film, nobody would question it. Everything here is consistent with Soderbergh's style: the use of varying color balances to visually distinguish storylines, the slightly grainy handheld verité-style cinematography, the plethora of long shots, the shots overlaid with music and no dialog. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not complaining. I think Soderbergh is brilliant; one of the greatest filmmakers working today. If Gaghan turns out to be Soderbergh Jr. as a director, that's certainly not a bad thing. I would hope, though, that Gaghan develops his own visual voice, and doesn't wind up a slavish disciple of Steve the Great.
In any event, Syriana is a spectacular achievement. Many have criticized it as being "impossible to follow." I disagree: any reasonably intelligent viewer who pays proper attention to the film can follow the disparate threads. Yes, it's a complex film -- more complex than even Traffic was. There's no main character, and no real anchor for the viewer, which does make it a challenging film. But its richness, its intelligence, and its realism more than make up for whatever effort is required of the viewer.
Everyone in this film is great. Everyone. Even the smallest roles in the film -- e.g. Woodman's increasingly-estranged wife and Barnes' ex-CIA-insider friend -- are played with skill by superior actors (respectively, the underrated Amanda Peet and the properly rated Bill Hurt). The story's four foci -- Clooney, Damon, Wright, and Munir -- are utterly fantastic. (Yes, you heard me, even Matt Damon.) Any of these four would have been award-worthy. Clooney's Oscar for his spectacularly skillful performance as Barnes was definitely appropriate, but cases could have easily been made for Wright and Munir as well. Add in great small performances by veterans like Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Nelson, Peter Gerety, and Colonel Christopher von Trapp Plummer, plus a surprising performance from Dr. Bashir himself, Alexander Siddig (f/k/a Siddig el Fadil), and you've got an acting clinic to die for.
If you haven't had a chance to add Syriana to your collection, then this Blu-ray version from Warner Brothers (or the equivalent HD DVD version) is the way to go -- with one caveat discussed below. High definition brings out a lot of the richness of Soderbergh's...er, I mean, Gaghan's visual style, although the grainy/handheld elements obviously don't show off the full glory of HD. Colors are very well-balanced in this original-aspect-ratio transfer, and detail is -- where applicable -- crisp and impressive. Sound is solid, presented in a competent 5.1 surround mix that is very dialog-heavy. This Blu-ray version features the same set of extras as the HD DVD disc, namely the same extras from the SD disc plus the two HD-only extras, "A Conversation With Matt Damon" and the featurette "Weaving Reality Into Drama."
I'm in full agreement with Judge Keefer's statement in his review of the HD DVD disc: this simply isn't enough of an extras package for this film. At the very least, Syriana should have a commentary track. This film begs to be discussed and analyzed, yet there's no commentary? That's a travesty. I, too, smell a "special edition" lurking in the future. So I'd suggest making this one a rental, and not a purchase, until such time as a better, more thorough edition is released.
The clashes of Arab culture vs. Western culture, money vs. truth, and loyalty vs. national interest have no easy resolutions. They will in all likelihood rage on long after we're all dead. It takes a daring screenwriter to attempt to tackle these issues on film. But Steve Gaghan is just such a daredevil. Syriana may be a lot like a Soderbergh film, but it's a lot like a great Soderbergh film -- and a great Soderbergh film is well worth watching no matter what the topic.
Syriana is not guilty, but Warner Bros. is ordered held at Gitmo without trial until they come up with a better quality extras package. And if the waterboard happens to come out? Well, shiznit happens...
Review content copyright © 2007 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (French)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Additional Scenes
* Featurette: Weaving Reality Into Drama
* A Conversation With George Clooney
* A Conversation With Matt Damon
* Make A Change, Make A Difference
* Official Site