Stephen Gaghan's Syriana is a film about oil in the same way that Traffic was a film about drugs. Both films, however, manage to use one singular issue to dissect something far greater – the state of modern American society and the people contained within. Gaghan, who wrote the script for Soderbergh's Traffic and here makes his directorial debut with Syriana, is interested not in the religious or fundamentalist issues but instead in the culmination of several extenuating factors that can turn people from mild-mannered citizens into something far worse. Just like Traffic, Syriana contains multiple storylines which converge to form a true representation of both the Middle East and the Americans who manipulate its future through business dealings and intelligence operations. It would be somewhat clichéd to dub Syriana a "political thriller", but it is indeed both of those things. Based on a book by disgruntled CIA officer Robert Baer, the politics within the film are genuine and well-researched: from oil company mergers to powerful energy analysts, and from disgruntled CIA officers to manipulated Muslim boys, the issues are painted with confidently-defined strokes and Gaghan is wise enough to never preach. He presents information with little commentary, something which led some audiences to feel alienated by the film's relatively-complex plot – however, in terms of realistic portrayals of complicated socio-political issues, he has excelled.
But this film is not all about the script. It is a film inherently invested in the Middle East and it therefore becomes vital to realistically capture this region of vast historical and cultural wealth. A shoddy portrayal of the area, or a combination of naïve stereotypes, would destroy the film's integrity. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Gaghan has indeed done his research and his gently-probing camerawork begins to unravel the rich cultural tapestry with aplomb. Small details are captured perfectly: like the abundance of Pakistani workers who are used by the Arabs as little more than slave labour, and the way in which the Islamic schools trap impressionable young boys by offering them fine food (in this case, ironically, they offer the staple Western diet: french fries), and a place where their views and concerns are seemingly entertained. But, Syriana also showcases the natural beauty of the Middle East – blue-tinged sunsets, vast masses of sand, crisp white dishdashas and the thriving throng of people who amass around the ports.
It would be wrong to assume, however, that the film is a criticism of the Middle Eastern way of life. Yes, there are characters who dabble with Islamic fundamentalism but this is driven by a complete lack of direction in their lives – they have no job, no house, and no hope. But, Gaghan is intelligent enough to show there are fundamentalist Americans – here represented by zealous oil tycoons, siphoning money away from consumers and straight into their back pockets. The Western world produces fundamentalists who use capitalism as their weapons, whilst the Islamic world uses religion as theirs. Likewise, the Americans are shown as a cunning people who – as most people now know – want to rule the world as they see fit. They want to dictate the price of oil just as the CIA wants to choose the next emir of a Gulf state. The film shows that this behaviour is destined to lead to a violent clash of cultures.
"Syriana" is a term used by Washington think-tanks when discussing a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East. With this film, we witness various characters attempts at reshaping their environment with varying intents and purposes. Bob Barnes (an Oscar-winning George Clooney) is a veteran CIA officer with extensive field experience; he is one of Washington's men in the Middle East who is tasked with controlling the illegal arms trade. He soon becomes disgruntled at the increased levels of politicisation at the higher echelons of the agency – he wants to track down a rogue missile but is instead assigned seemingly-pointless bureaucratic tasks. In order to make a difference, he returns to the field in an attempt to assassinate Prince Nasir (the wonderful Alexander Siddig), the supposed heir to an oil-rich Gulf state who is – perhaps wrongfully – distrusted by the U.S. government. After witnessing Western culture first-hand, Nasir wishes to create a more liberal, parliamentary system which would service his people and liberate all four corners of his kingdom. The CIA, however, deems it necessary to keep a regime in place which services American oil interests and not the interests of the Arabic people.
Meanwhile Nasir has hired American energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon in fine form) to improve his kingdom's economic performance. Woodman is fighting against his own demons, much like the Pakistani migrant workers who start to turn towards fundamentalism in a bid to find some meaning in their lives. Back in the USA, the Department of Justice hires attorney Bennett Holiday (played by the underrated Jeffrey Wright) to investigate the possible anti-trust implications of a merger between oil giants Connex and Killen, the self-created 23rd largest economy in the world.
There are, however, certain elements which are worth criticising. It has been well publicised in recent months that George Clooney is a prominent liberal, a passionate Democrat (with a big D) who, fifty years ago, would have been labelled a prominent anti-American by the same Senator who Clooney chastised in Good Night, and Good Luck. It seems that Clooney's political views have seeped into Gaghan's screenplay as Syriana amounts to a collection of statements and questions that could clearly be labelled "anti-American". Corporations are evil, the CIA is an out of touch political puppet and capitalism breeds terror. But, this simplistic interpretation aside, there is certainly compelling evidence to support this theory. The oil company executives, most notably Chris Cooper's "Jimmy" Pope, are imposing, lecherous creatures; the Islamic terrorists, meanwhile, are portrayed as merely misguided.
Political criticism aside, Gaghan has captured his desired themes very well indeed, something which is aided greatly by the film's exemplary acting – from the underused Christopher Plummer as a sceptical Washington lawyer to Clooney in sensational form. However, with a film like this it is essential to bear in mind that all concerns and questions are subjective. Some are undeniably-balanced and true to life whilst others are questionable. Just like classics such as All the President's Men, Syriana is inspired by recent political developments and it wishes to make a statement criticising the methods of a particular administration and its policies. The film provides vital food for thought and the discussions that it inevitably fuels serve an important purpose in today's world. It might be occasionally biased but the film's passion is undeniable.
Released courtesy of Warner Bros., this R1 release arrives on DVD some weeks before its British counterpart. English, French and Spanish subtitles are provided throughout the main feature. However, it is worth noting that all captions within the film are player-generated and fairly obtrusive. I hope that one day this practice will stop.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is an excellent reproduction of the theatrical experience. Different film stocks appear to have been used – much like Soderbergh's Traffic – resulting in an apt-use of grain for the desert scenes and a distanced, cool look to the Washington scenes. No digital artefacts were present aside from the occasional presence of aliasing; my only other criticism would be a slight loss of sharpness during certain scenes, but this may be a result of the director's intent to shoot the film with a short depth of field and a relatively narrow focus. Sonically, the film receives a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which is ambient enough without sounding exemplary. For those French speakers out there, a French 5.1 mix is also provided.
Unfortunately the quality and quantity of the extras leaves something to be desired. The most substantive feature is a 9-minute conversation with George Clooney and an 11-minute featurette entitled "Make a Change, Make a Difference" which discusses the film's politics and the project's gestation, and features an enlightening interview with CIA officer Robert Baer. With a total running time of 20 minutes it makes for interesting and informative viewing, but one can't help but want more. A handful of deleted scenes add little and are mainly concerned with the relationship between Bob Barnes and his wife (who was left out of the final cut). Finally, the film's theatrical trailer rounds off the meagre selection of extras.
An intelligent, controversial and stimulating film is presented on a good disc. It would have been nice to see more substantive extras and an audio commentary with Gaghan and Clooney, however, but I'm sure Warner Bros. will force consumers to double-dip in the near future; consider yourselves warned!