Saturday, December 31, 2005


SYRIANA (Stephen Gaghan, 2005)

Stephen Gaghan wrote the complicated tour of the drug trade in TRAFFIC. Now he takes on the global oil industry as writer and director of SYRIANA. The film is a complex web of princes, lawyers, secret agents, and businessmen who are trying to keep the upper hand in controlling the precious natural resource. SYRIANA’S characters include Bob Barnes (George Clooney), an undercover CIA operative in the Middle East; Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an energy analyst who becomes an economic advisor to a prince who can grant access to drilling rights in one of the region's key spots; and Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a corporate lawyer vetting the merger of two oil companies.

In SYRIANA the Chinese get the drilling rights to a hotly contested spot in the Persian Gulf, beating out American energy behemoth Connex. Meanwhile, small U.S. oil company Killen wins the rights for some highly desired Kazakhstan fields. In need of more wells, Connex plans to merge with Killen pending Justice Department approval.

In granting the rights to the Chinese, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig) departed from the royal family's longtime favor shown toward American businesses. As an economic decision, the Chinese bid brings in more money, but Prince Nasir's willingness in this instance to break prior relationships upsets the Americans and will have worldwide political consequences. Prince Nasir is expected to be heir to the throne, but his younger brother, Prince Meshal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha), also wants to succeed their father. Since Prince Meshal is more bendable to U.S. interests, people are at work to have him ascend, whether it involves convincing Emir Hamed Al-Subaai (Nadim Sawalha) to choose him or having Prince Nasir assassinated.

Gaghan dives headlong into the murky waters of SYRIANA, a choice that is likely to leave the most astute viewers bewildered. This is a challenging film to follow and one that is probably not fully comprehensible in one or two viewings. SYRIANA demands patience to see how the pieces come together in a fascinating mosaic of politics, capitalism, and corruption. The head-spinning nature of the subject, in addition to the stakes, helps explain why dishonesty and amorality thrive in the industry.

Gaghan’s skillful formal design, aided by Robert Elswit’s breathtaking cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s score, brings aesthetic beauty to this work of intellectual rigor. The performances are excellent across the board, including Clooney as a tight-lipped agent who does the dirty work without any questions, Damon’s no-nonsense advisor, Alexander Siddig as the politically savvy Prince Nasir, and Tim Blake Nelson’s straight-shooting Texas oilman. SYRIANA’S comprehensive view of the oil industry is its strength and its weakness, an information overload compacted into an enlightening and elusive exposé.

Grade: B

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