Judge Eric Profancik is easily corruptable. Give him a DVD, he'll give you a review.
"Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win."
Corruption: it's a very ugly word. Its implications are clear and simple, and there's really no way to spin the word to be positive. Yet people do try, and in that attempt something else happens. A transformation occurs where that person slides into the depths of self-deception, but it doesn't bother them. Their arrogance and hubris erase it from their minds, focusing on the benefits their corruption will bring to them.
One of the oldest clichés in the world deals with corruption, and so does Syriana. The movie is not only about corruption, but it is all about the negativity and darks places associated with such dark tasks.
We are nearly half way through 2006, and one of the pressing issues facing Americans is the price of oil and the subsequent price of gasoline. One day you drive to the pump and it costs $2.95/gallon. The next day, a major terrorist is killed and the price falls to $2.71/gallon. Two days later, some car bombs go off in Iraq and the price jumps back up to $2.95. All the while debate rages in government because people are tired of the high prices, or the wild fluctuations in price—and average Americans want their Representative to do something about it. And they want to keep their jobs.
Oil. Terrorism. Politics.
Intimately tied together in the twenty-first century, how do they interact? It's not a pretty picture.
Facts of the Case
Four seemingly disparate stories unfold against the backdrop of the merger of two oil firms, Connex and Killen.
With the impending merger, some workers at the fields in the Gulf are fired as their services are no longer necessary. Many young men are desperate to find new employment opportunities, but jobs are few. In that desperation, the religious leaders that they turn to for guidance can easily sway these men's minds.
Bob Barnes (George Clooney, Ocean's 11), an undercover agent for the CIA, is working to uncover a terrorist group by supplying them with missiles. When the delivery doesn't unfold as expected and Bob is overtly concerned, he's recalled to Washington contain the situation. But a new situation arises where his particular skill set could be of great benefit.
Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig, Star Trek: Deep Space 9) is the firstborn son of the Emir of a Gulf State, and, as a result, is in line to become Emir. His country is friendly with the United States, who wants to maintain positive relations with his country; but they are wary of Nasir. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon, The Bourne Supremacy) is an analyst with a European energy trading company who is trying to convince Prince Nasir to utilize his firm as a consultant. Woodman feels Nasir's country isn't bullish enough with its oil business, and believes he can help Nasir and his country become a major player in the oil business.
And behind all of this is concern in Washington about Connex merging with Killen. Somehow, minor player Killen acquired a significant contract on some oil fields; immediately thereafter, Connex acquired it. The Justice Department must review the matter, and attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright, Ali) is sent by his firm to show that this merger is above board. Of course, his firm has a vested interest in the merger's approval.
These events will all come together.
That's the not-so-subtle point of Syriana, a mesmerizing look at the tangled web of oil and politics. This film could not be any timelier, with oil prices in the evening news almost daily. We Americans watch the price fluctuate each day, wondering what is going on. Why does it jump so much, and, more importantly to me, why does gas jump up so quickly the same day? Wasn't the gas at the station processed weeks ago at a different price? How can today's oil price increase affect the gas price at the pump? And why is it prices don't fall as quickly when the price of oil recedes?
Syriana will not answer that question. In fact, it won't answer many questions at all. What it will do is give you an eye-opening look at how opposing forces fight for what they want in this lucrative business.
Opposing forces is also a gentle way of describing the current political climate in this country, as it has boiled down to an us versus them mentality, of democrats versus republicans. It's so nasty that neither side trusts one another, nor, as a result, this film evokes political thoughts immediately. Yet Syriana is not a political film. Believe it or not, even with renowned liberal activist George Clooney in a major role, this film does endeavor to be fair and balanced. It isn't skewed to the left or the right, and it works to present both sides of the story—all four stories.
Our first story revolves around young men desperate for work. If you read it a certain way, this story evolves into a tale of naïve men recruited for terrorist acts. In this story, we see these Arabic men not portrayed as evil terrorists hell bent to wreak havoc. No, they are played as innocent men swept up unwittingly by those with evil thoughts. We see both sides: how good men can be corrupted by bad people.
The next story with Bob Barnes shows the dedication of a lifelong agent working to thwart terrorism. He's knowledgeable, smart, willing to do the right thing, and speaking up to make sure bad news isn't lost in the shuffle. But he's just one cog in a bigger machine with multiple agendas. We see both sides: the good agent swept up by goals that contradict his mission.
With Prince Nasir, things get far more complicated. Americans don't understand their own government, let alone the royalty of a Middle Eastern country. But here we have an Emir and his children, and the future of his nation. Nasir has a certain vision of that future but it may not line up with the past and, more importantly, the ideas of the United States. We see here both sides: tradition versus progress.
Lastly, tucked into the middle of everything else, is Holiday's story. It is perhaps the most important of them all and also the one that we can understand most easily. Watching Holiday vigilantly work to investigate this mega merger brings to light everything dark in such a process. It illuminates all the players and how so many hands can be in one pot, each pulling in a separate direction to achieve their own personal goal. In that mix is Holiday, a man apparently on the straight and narrow working to see what is wrong, and whether this corporate action is in the best interests of the country. We see three sides: the law versus politics versus lobbyists. Only government could have three sides.
So what does this all mean? It means that Syriana tries to walk the fine line of not being political and fervently trying to present all sides to the issue. Is it an issue? Most certainly. Is there a resolution to the issue? Certainly not. We come away with an enlightened view of the devil in the details—details we may have never imagined. The movie portrays a fictitious situation with too many conveniences, yet it's plausible that it could happen this way. Exxon and Mobile are now one company. Chevron and Texaco are now one company. Merger mania has hit, and that gives us the springboard to examine who makes out in the process. Just look at the profits ExxonMobile made the first quarter of 2006.
Still, as carefully as it works to be neutral and show both sides of the coin, Syriana's message is as clear as day: Power corrupts. Be it the religious leaders, politicians, lawyers, Princes, or the CIA, once the nectar of power is tasted, one always wants another drink. Delusions may set in as to why they continue to drink, and that is one of the shades of gray presented in the movie. Why do these events unfold in this fashion?
At least we can state that this message is free from political bias.
But let's cut through all this rigmarole and focus on the simple merits of the movie. Is it any good? Definitely. Syriana is an intelligent drama that makes you think: think about the material, think about the actions, and simply think about what is happening on film. It forces you to pay attention so you can understand the movie. That focus is rewarded with a smart story, great acting, and impressive direction from Stephen Gaghan, director of fan favorite Traffic. I was amused at one point to hear someone describe Syriana as a story with a non-linear narrative like Traffic, but I don't believe it's true. The story is certainly linear, but you don't know how it all fits together.
What really keeps this challenging film going is the great cast. Everyone specifically mentioned above and a few others—Christopher Plummer (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), Chris Cooper (Capote), and even Amanda Peet (Identity)—work together to enhance the film. No one is looking for top billing, and each works as part of an ensemble to create a stronger film. George Clooney may have won an Oscar for his role in this film, but it could have been awarded to many of the actors in Syriana.
Syriana is the type of film that calls you to watch it again. The first time, you're wondering how it will all come together. You're entranced by the performances and the engaging story, and when it's all over, you want to see it again. You want to start over to have a chance to drink in the performances and the stories without having to work as hard too see how it all fits.
And if you heed that call, what does the DVD have in store for you? Let's start with the good part: the transfers. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer has some very difficult moments to present, and it handles them all well. As shown in this picture from the opening scenes of the film, the disc easily renders this heavily shrouded scene without the slightest flicker of artifacting or pixelization. I was enjoying the movie and its crisp presentation of accurate colors, rich blacks, and excellent details, when at the very end, the simplest shot of someone walking past a wall was riddled with artifacting. Outside of that, it's a great video transfer. For the audio, we're treated to an immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that doesn't have much to do in this dialogue-intensive film. The dialogue is easy to understand without any hiss or distortion, the wonderful score is precise, and the occasional explosion is well rendered.
The bad part is everything else, namely the bonus material—or the lack thereof. Outside of a smattering of trailers and three tossaway deleted scenes (6 minutes, which is just the tip of the iceberg of all the deleted scenes available), you have two featurettes. First up is "A Conversation with George Clooney" (9 minutes). I was expecting George to get political and talk about Syriana in that frame of reference, but that is not the case. Instead, it's a general overview of the movie, light on details. Next and last is "Make a Change, Make a Difference" (11 minutes, 16 seconds), where neutrality is finally thrown out and we get the political spin we've been waiting for. This piece truly feels out of place, even though it is trying to inspire you to do something about the problems posited in the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
So what is "Syriana"? What does this word mean or imply? In looking at it, we clearly see the word (and country) "Syria," but what's the rest of the word imply? Is it meant to be another country, possibly Iran? If you're expecting an answer from the movie, you won't find one. Instead, you have to do some research to learn that this is a think tank word. It's a word that is used to describe a pseudo country in the Middle East. It's a word of conjecture; one used to posit future possibilities. Or, more simply, it's just a way to talk about the Middle East without naming names. If you ask Gaghan what it means, he would say, "'Syriana,' the concept—the fallacious dream that you can successfully remake nation-states in your own image—is a mirage." Certainly no political overtones on that one.
I recommend Syriana. It is one of the most challenging and rewarding movies from 2006, leaving me entertained, informed, and with something to think about. Though it has one video hiccup and a sub par assortment of special features, don't let that distract you from an intelligent, adult drama.
Syriana is hereby found guilty of priming the pump.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "A Conversation with George Clooney"
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