Warner Bros. // 2005 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // July 10th, 2006
Everything is connected.
Stephen Gaghan wrote the last excellent drama surrounding one key topic (drugs) and spanning it over several different regions using a myriad of top drawer acting talent. With the direction of Steven Soderbergh, Traffic became a critical success that helped revive the discussion of how futile the American government's policies toward drugs and drug enforcement have been over the last quarter century. Using the subject of oil as the backdrop and the things that people do because of and for it, is Syriana a recycled exercise or is it the real deal?
Inspired by the book "See No Evil" from retired CIA operative Robert Baer, the focus of Syriana lies within three areas. First, a career CIA agent with a lot of ties and connections in the Middle East (George Clooney, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) who is sent back to Lebanon with another mission in mind; an energy analyst (Matt Damon, Ocean's Eleven) who goes to win the business of an aspiring Arab prince (Alexander Siddig, Kingdom of Heaven); and a corporate lawyer (Jeffrey Wright, Broken Flowers) who is doing what he can to maintain his integrity while he monitors the merger of two large oil companies.
Not to restate anything that hasn't already been said about Syriana, but this was the first film in my recent memory where a major studio released a film that, at its heart, has an intelligent story, told in a compelling way with main characters that constantly evolve. And in an even more admirable twist to the film, the events in the film have a wide variety of consequences that many could not foresee, and if there are any truth to these events, provides for a chilling event for real world events.
Many people have compared the film to Traffic for the reasons mentioned above, but the way that Syriana differentiates itself is that there doesn't seem to be any individual or institution that wears a white hat as the viewer goes from Tehran to Washington to Houston and back again. It's also very surprising to see just how easily someone can be swayed to renounce any allegiances or value system for the sake of retribution or personal gain. The most vivid example of this is seeing a young oil worker that is laid off from one of the US company oil derricks, and is without work. He looks for work in different areas and almost resorts to begging for work without pay to contribute. When he is out of luck or chances, he and a friend encounter a friendly fellow Arab who shows them how things might be easier and uses a platform apparently based on Islamic fundamentalism to illustrate this. The worker is very agreeable to this, and he eventually performs a task similar to the U.S.S. Cole bombing several years ago. Whether or not this journey is symbolic to most of those who swear allegiance to wage jihad against Americans or not I don't know, but if it's remotely true, then the infidels should be better prepared against the repercussions of the actions their businesses conduct in the region.
As for the performances, they are all excellent. Clooney is very good as Bob Barnes, the "black bag" secret agent whose government has lost its faith in him and in a sense, ambushes him when he travels to Lebanon to kidnap an Arab prince who has the radical ideas of self-governance, the creation of a parliament and other tenets that many other governments in the region could deem as "revolutionary," but not in a good way. The prince's newly appointed economic advisor is Bryan Woodman (Damon), a man whose older son is accidentally electrocuted at a party held by the king of the country. He almost perversely uses this tragedy to not only get more business from the government but receives a promotion as a result of it. Wright's performance as the lawyer seems to be directed by governmental actions in a strange way as the fictional oil companies Connex and Killen attempt to merge. I haven't even covered the supporting performances by Christopher Plummer (The Insider) and Oscar Winner Chris Cooper (American Beauty) as the heads of these large companies, not to mention William Hurt (A History of Violence) as Stan, an almost mentor figure to Barnes that is approached for frequent advice and guidance.
Warner Brothers has brought over the extras from the standard version of this disc over to the HD DVD version, and the extras themselves are a little bit on the light side. The good thing is that they've included a couple of extras exclusive to this HD release that may make those six of you who have the new HD DVD player feel a bit privileged. To review the extras is pretty quick, as there are four deleted scenes in the film that focus on Barnes' storylines, including his wife (played by Greta Scacchi, Flightplan). Separate interviews with Clooney and (in an HD exclusive) Damon talk about their attraction to the film and to the material. A small piece entitled "Make a Change, Make a Difference" encompasses what Clooney, Damon and Gaghan think about the energy business and what can be done to change things. "Weaving Reality into Drama" is a look into the production with Gaghan and Baer, and how Gaghan's concepts became reality. There are some interesting tour photos with Baer and it would be more than interesting to see the life that Baer has led. While these extras are interesting, at the end of the day, one would hope that with these new extras that perhaps a more robust special edition is in the cards.
Earlier, I made note of Clooney's performance, and it's a good one. His was the last of the 2005 Best Supporting Actor nominees I had been able to see. Now, maybe it's the Republican in me, maybe it's because I think Paul Giamatti has persistently been passed over for his work every year since 2003's American Splendor, but I didn't see as much magic in Clooney's role as others might have. If anything, I would say that his role as Bob Barnes is a lot closer to his role as Tom Devoe in 1997's The Peacemaker, with the exception of a beard and a gut, Barnes is a heckuva lot more soft spoken than Devoe was. In fact, Clooney's performance might not even be the best of the film, as Damon's performance, while being subtle, is more symbolic of the film's message about money and power transforming people more than Clooney's was. So where's the love for Will Hunting?
Syriana remains an effective tale of the things that people will do for money, power and their desire to accumulate more of it whatever the cost to the individual may be. The storylines are equally powerful and compelling, and the fact that they all intersect at some point without an editorial point of view makes it an even larger telling statement on the current global economy.
Syriana is found guilty of the crime of starting a public discussion over a current and controversial topic. But since when is that a crime? Send in the next case.
Review content copyright © 2006 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Additional Scenes
* Documentary "Weaving Reality into Drama"
* "A Conversation with George Clooney"
* "A Conversation with Matt Damon"
* "Make a Change, Make a Difference"
* Official Site
* Original Verdict Review
* Robert Baer PBS Interview Transcript