Syriana: Two-Disc Special Edition Review

When Connex loses a natural gas contract in the Persian Gulf and sees a previously minor player, Killen, win major oil rights in Kazakhstan, it moves in to buy the smaller company. Bennett Holliday (Jeffrey Wright) is the lawyer assigned to discover how Killen won their contract.

Meanwhile, CIA operative Bob Barnes is ordered to assassinate Prince Nassir, the sheikh responsible for the Chinese sale. The intention is to replace Nassir with his brother Meshal, who is more sympathetic to US interests. Nassir has hired energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) to assist him in his expansion plans in the Gulf. Meanwhile, Wasim (Mazhar Munir) and Farooq (Sonell Dadral), two labourers laid off by Connex, are recruited by a radical Islamic seminary…

Syriana is a companion-piece to Traffic, whish was written by Stephen Gaghan (adapted from a Channel 4 serial) and directed by Steven Soderbergh. With this new film, Gaghan directs as well. Both films use a multiplot structure to cover several aspects of a contemporary issue. With Traffic it was the international drug trade, from the people who produce the drugs to the people who use them. Syriana aims to do a similar thing with the oil trade, taking in the effects of unfettered American capitalism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism along the way. Again we have four interlocking plots and a large number of speaking parts – the result is not as difficult to follow as some suggest, but it does require the viewer to pay attention for the two hours of screentime.

There are a lot of things to admire in Syriana: the intelligence clearly at work here, and the quality of acting. Gaghan’s direction follows the handheld-verite style that Soderbergh used on Traffic, even if Gaghan doesn’t colour-code the separate plot strands as Soderbergh did. The cast is well chosen and, most importantly of all, the whole thing seems impeccably researched and up-to-the-minute. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but very little made me suspend my disbelief. In fact, the film partly pays the price for its up-to-dateness: it’s set during Mohammad Khatami’s eight years as President, with his attempts at reform and bridge-building with the West (though still tightly controlled by the Ayatollahs). Iran now has a more hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and the atmosphere is different.

However, Syriana is a film whose parts do not add up to a satisfying whole. This is mostly due to the structure of Gaghan’s script. Of the four plotlines, some inevitably are more interesting, and more developed, than others. There’s nothing wrong with Jeffrey Wright’s performance as Bennett – he’s an actor who time and again has shown he can disappear into a role – but with only some twenty minutes of screentime. His storyline doesn’t register as well as Matt Damon’s and expecially not George Clooney’s. The inspiration for the film was ex-CIA operative Bob Baer’s book See No Evil. The film’s Bob Barnes is Baer’s equivalent, and the character gets a fine performance from Clooney, bearded and thirty pounds heavier than normal. On the other hand, Damon’s section relies a little heavily on melodramatic devices such as his child’s death in an accident. The sections showing the making of two suicide bombers is certainly interesting, but you can sense the film keeping its distance somewhat. There’s a sense that the whole subject (and I’ve not even mentioned certain actors and their subplots) is simply too big to be contained in a two-hour feature film: Traffic was half an hour longer and that extra time gave its storylines more time to breathe, which was to their benefit.

Syriana is certainly well worth your time, though it doesn’t live up to its ambitions. That said, it’s good to see an American film that is prepared to take on such big contemporary issues, even if it doesn’t quite manage to do them justice.

This Hong Kong edition of Syriana is a two-disc edition, encoded for Region 3 only. The film is on the first disc and the extras are on the second. Disc One begins with trailers for Firewall, V for Vendetta and North Country, but these can be skipped.

The DVD is transferred in its original ratio of 2.40:1 (filmed in Super 35) and is anamorphically enhanced. Gaghan and his DP Robert Elswit film in a low-key, rather underlit style which, with the plentiful use of a not-too-shaky handheld camera, gives the film a documentary look, without going for the overtly grainy 16mm or (more often nowadays) DV look. The transfer is sharp, colourful within its muted range, and shadow detail is fine.

The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1, either in the original English (with several scenes conducted in Arabic or Farsi) or a Thai dub. Syriana follows its predecessor Traffic by matching its low-key visuals with a low-key soundtrack, most of it going through the centre channel with just Alexandre Desplat’s music score using the surrounds. Even some explosions are downscaled, when other films would have made them room-shaking subwoofer setpieces. There are thirty-three chapter stops. Menus are available in all the subtitle languages. The extras (all in English) have only Korean, Thai and Chinese as their subtitle options.

Disc Two begins with “A Conversation with George Clooney” (9:11). Clooney talks about how attractive Gaghan’s script was to everyone they approached to be in the film and how acting in the Third World informed him as a person and as an actor. Having said that, it was a hard film to finance, though with Clooney and Matt Damon on board it became easier. “Weaving Reality into Drama” (26:06) centres on Gaghan and his inspiration for the film. This began with his meeting with Bob Baer (also interviewed) which began with Baer introducing him to many key players in the oil trade. This began with mansions in France (no-one who is anyone stays in the Gulf in August). He also tells a story of being abducted by Hezbollah in Lebanon, a scene he recreates in the film. We see behind the scenes footage from shoots in Baltimore, Morocco, Geneva and finally Dubai.

Next up is “A Conversation with Matt Damon” (7:14), where the actor discusses his role in the film and how he approached it, particularly his use of an expert advisor, Stephen MacSerraigh.

”Make a Change, Make a Difference” (11:19) is somewhat different: it asks how people can make a difference, and question the way the world works. This featurette also touches on environmental issues, particularly the perception in Bush’s America that not to use oil is somehow unpatriotic.

There are three short deleted scenes, with a Play All function, totalling six minutes in length. These are “Bob, Margaret and Robbie at the Café”, “Bob and Fred Walk and Talk”, and “Margaret Visits Bob”. As usual with such scenes, you can see why they were cut, mostly for pacing reasons. Finally, there is the theatrical trailer (2:18) which makes the film look more like a thriller than it actually is.

All the above extras are in 16:9 non-anamorphic, except the trailer which is 2.40:1 anamorphic. The trailer has a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround soundtrack. All the extras are in English only, with Korean, Chinese and Thai subtitle options.

Syriana is an intelligent film that has been well presented in this two-disc edition, though some of the above extras do appear in single-disc versions elsewhere. That said, the extras are certainly worth having.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:39:30

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