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Syriana Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006

Image After the 9/11 attack, a book came out that changed the face of American espionage in the Middle East. In See No Evil, author Robert Baer accused the Central Intelligence Agency of relying too heavily on technological spying devices instead of dealing with flesh-and-blood “assets” (the people they seduce, bribe, blackmail, and brainwash to help them manage intelligence). The CIA’s response was that it was too hard to train people to speak Farsi and the other languages involved in that volatile area, and it was equally as hard to get agents into the area without getting them killed.

The book was praised and castigated almost equally. However, there was no refuting the fact that the United States had been caught flatfooted by a terrorist aggressor and that shouldn’t have happened. The book became an overnight bestseller and caught the attention of film director, Stephen Gaghan.

Gaghan wrote the screenplay for Stephen Soderbergh’s “Traffic”, their take on the drug trade and who it affected, from the dealers to the users to the law enforcement agencies to the politicians and the communities where the drugs proliferated. Gaghan seems to have borrowed a lot of the look and feel of “Traffic” for “Syriana”.

“Syriana” is an emotionally charged and blisteringly paced film told as in media res (loose translation from Latin: in the middle of things). The form isn’t used much these days because most films tend to be character-driven—even when they’re thin as tissue paper. Gaghan shifts swiftly through his diverse storylines like a Grand Prix driver managing tight curves. George Clooney (also a producer on the film) plays burned-out CIA Special Agent Bob Barnes. The opening scenes establish him as a hanger-on of the criminal/terrorist element. After the party scene, Bob is taken to a clandestine meeting and shown a Stinger missile, which catches him off-guard. Before leaving the building he bumps into a man dressed as an Arab but who doesn’t even speak Farsi. His life spared, Bob leaves quickly. Behind him, a car containing the men he’d been dealing with explodes and he knows the Stinger missile has gone missing.

Twenty pounds overweight, looking older than his years and beaten down by life, this role is one of the best George Clooney has had. In most of his movies he’s always playing the suave, competent character. “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” was a notable exception. Clooney’s take on the character is someone who is jaded and tired, struggles to hold onto belief, and is somehow clueless about who is using him or why.

Matt Damon costars as Bryan Woodman, a young oil broker who has been a glamour boy for getting deals. He’s assigned to try to become the emir’s new agent, but doesn’t even get to first base until he goes through a personal tragedy. Then, after he meets Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), he becomes a believer in what the prince can do in his country.

Bennett Holiday is the attorney set to watchdog the merger between the two huge oil companies. Jeffrey Wright is Holiday, carrying the role off with perfect pitch, even working in a dysfunctional relationship with his father along the way. Holiday is the man who has to work out all the details with the devil to make the merger happen.

Chris Cooper plays Jimmy Pope, Texas wildcatter turned billionaire, to a T. The accent, the moves, and the mindset are all dead on.

William Hurt is Stan, Bob Barnes’ friend, and the role is so laid back it could have been phoned in. Still, Hurt is always interesting to watch, even if only briefly.

Mazhar Munir plays Wasim Khan, a disenfranchised oilfield worker who loses his job when the merger takes place. He’s pulled into the terrorist network at first because he only wants to learn the language so he can work in the country. Then, in the end, he is seduced by the religious promises for a better life in the afterlife. This plotline is outstanding and he really hits on all his marks.

Tim Blake Nelson, a great character actor, is reduced to a barely-there role as Danny Dalton, but he’s given the most memorable lines in the movie when he goes on about corruption.

Amanda Peet plays Julie Woodman, Bryan’s wife and does a really good job as first supportive, then suffering. Unfortunately, the brevity of the scenes allows her little time to do anything else.

Christopher Plummer plays Dean Whiting, a powerbroker among the elite who can make and break careers with a single phone call. He carries the role with ease, going through each scene as a man of leisure, then puts the squeeze on the emir’s second son, making him bend to side with the United States rather than China.

Prince Nasir Al-Subaai is a forward thinking leader in a country that doesn’t allow forward thinking. He negotiates a deal with the Chinese government for them to buy his country’s oil, shutting the United States out of the deal because the Chinese will pay more and they can make more money. However, as much as he wants to change the course of his country’s future, he’s trapped by everyone around him.

Gaghan does a wonderful job of putting all the pieces together in the film through the scripting and the directing. At a time when gas prices are at an all-time high (and corporate oil companies are posting huge returns for their investors), this is the kind of movie that gets people thinking and protesting. Everything these days seems to be about the economy, and Gaghan peels back the layers of what he perceives that world to be about through the staging presented by Robert Baer’s book.

The drawback to the movie is that it takes a long time to immerse yourself in the storylines before you really start to get the gist of it. I had to resist the impulse to turn it off a few times during the first hour, and actually did put it on pause while I tended errands. However, once I got past the first hour, I started to see what the film was really about and how the disparate pieces were going to pull together. At that point, everything keeps you on your toes, waiting to see what’s going to happen next.

I don’t know if events portrayed in the movie precisely shows how big business and the government really work behind the scenes (I’m sure there’s enough paranoia these days to build a case for it, though), but the emotions were real enough and the problems are definitely ones we’re going through now.

HD DVD Video: “Syriana” gives the HD DVD system a workout. Constantly shifting storylines means jumping back and forth between the Middle East, Switzerland, the United States, oilfields, the ocean and several interiors of boardrooms, restaurants, etc. The high-def presentation never misfires, constantly bringing clear, sharp images whether it’s inside or outside.

HD DVD Audio: With the low-key presentation, the surround sound system barely gets a chance to deliver the high-octane audio it’s capable of. “Syriana” is more about engaging the viewer’s mind and paranoia than in blasting him with a score or special effects sounds. But the voices are perfect, a whisper is a whisper and a cry of panic and pain haunts us.

“Syriana” is part thinking man’s thriller and part political tract, a chess game with rising stakes. It’s so well done that it’s hard to separate one from the other. However, it’s not meant for light viewing. As mentioned, George Clooney gives one of his best performances here, but he’s not on screen much of the time. Even Clooney fans might want to pick this one up as a rental before deciding to acquire. It’s definitely worth watching once, but I doubt many people watch it more than that.

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