"It's running out, and 90% of what's left, is in the Middle East. This is a fight to the death."
Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) in Syriana
is an amalgam of Middle East country names suggested by
American foreign policy mandarins to brand what they must
regard as one massive, US-culture sustaining oil field.
In other words, 'Syriana' is what the gas station would
be called if the world was small enough to call the Middle
East a truck stop. It always struck me as either horrifically
satisfying or proof God does irony that (a) the most powerful
and progressive nation on Earth is utterly dependent on
nations almost as far away from the US as they could be
and (b) that the area is governed by what Jonathan Millar
once bravely called (from an atheist's point of view) "…the
biggest outdoor lunatic asylum in the world…"
Millar also mused in his excellent series on disbelief that
it seemed so incongruous that religious fanaticism fuelled
the terrorist attack of 9/11 and yet a few hundred miles
west from New York lay a heartland of such staunch religious
belief that in this case, Christianity would give Islam
a run for its dinar. And with a link Barry Norman would
have been proud of, we go from dinars, to dinners…
the desert, middle eastern working men argue for a place
on the bus. A place on the bus means food on the table.
The successful few are employed by a corporate oil company
that could not care less about those who do its dirty work.
In Tehran, an overweight, bearded American is doing shady
arms deals with confident Iranians. An oil analyst gives
the American TV stations what they want but is still beholden
to the Saudi Emirs whose oil America depends on. The board
of governors of a huge oil film (Connex) is astounded how
a small firm (Killen) managed to secure a deal with Kazakhstan,
a deal worth billions.
if that paragraph intrigues you, you are going to love every
slow burning moment of Stephen Gaghan's masterful study
of the global oil business and the men who bathe in it.
Gaghan wrote Traffic for Soderbergh and
if ambitious writers have another good script, it's only
logical that they get a crack at directing it. Despite the
credit that Syriana is based on the book,
'See No Evil: The True Story Of A Ground Soldier In The
CIA's War On Terrorism' by Robert Baer (and Baer plays a
small role in the movie), the American Academy have classified
Gaghan's screenplay as 'original' and not adapted, a move
that has mystified the writer/director. Gaghan does a wonderful
job given that his two hour movie demands patience and an
attentive ear for moments that turn on a dime. This is not
a movie for the Van Helsing crowd. This
is provocative and thoughtful film-making that dares to
take the biggest subject of the 21st century and ram a reasoned
and robust reality down the audiences' throat. The quote
that began this review is no fantasy. Of course, it's a
movie so there are certain dramatic licenses in place (I
would so love the movie police to pull a film over and demand
to see its dramatic licence) and these faceless corporate
stooges and overlords can't all be the scum of the Earth…
about oil for a moment. Oil is civilization, the west, the
powers that be. Oil is the Duracell battery no Christmas
should be without and we in 'the west' have had far too
many Christmasses. Guess what? We've taken it for granted
for so many decades that if it were taken away - as it will
be inevitably - what happens then? Well, the US (understandably
but not uncritically) isn't standing idle waiting for the
Saudis to charge the Earth to maintain the land of the free
and the home of the craving for oil. It's making deals and
international business (a subject as far from my fields
of experience as God is from Richard Dawkins) depends on
those deals. Syriana is a film that explores
what happens when conscience, ambition and naked greed all
conflagrate in a vast ball of energy. Who comes out of it
alive? I'll give you a clue. There are no bad guys but hey,
they still manage to win.
plays overweight, bearded Bob. Bob is an American assassin
who is able to do his job (in the first case without even
blinking as a car goes up behind him) because he believes
for good or ill, that he is on the side of right. The pitch
white conscience he displays inures him against any sense
that his country may not be operating with a clear moral
duty. His methods are appallingly horrific (this is Dr.
Ross, for heaven's sake). He plainly outlines the terrible
aspects of his job as if he were a plumber advising a home-owner
to fix a tap. A potential victim of a professional hit is
to be poisoned. Bob fills in the rest. "Tie him up
and then drive a car at him at 50mph…" All in
a day's work for this creature of the blight, an unquestioning
killer. But then Bob manages to get on the other side of
his finely drawn line and let's just say that he'll never
be able to get a manicure again without fearful shivers.
in the narrative is the 'nice' family man oil guy. Bryan,
played by Matt Damon, is an analyst who is devoted to his
wife and kids and his company wants to send him and his
family on a political jolly to Saudi to advise a soon-to-be
Emir (played convincingly and attractively by Deep
Space Nine's Dr.; Bashir, Alexander Siddiq) on
how he should plan for the future. The results of the trip
are accidentally horrifying. This particular tragic scene
is directed and cut in such a superb way, it manages to
deliver on three fronts. It propels the narrative forward,
deepens those characters involved and shocks you rigid.
It's not quite as startling as Elijah Wood's demise in Sin
City but because it's mired in a reality we recognise
as close to our own as cinema gets, the shock is palpable.
Damon is now lured back as the wannabe Emir's future proofing
advisor much to his wife's chagrin.
develops from these highly effective roots is a complex
movie that moves at its own pace - some might say slow and
I can accept that but then slow suits some movies and told
any faster, the message would be pruned back, the power
diminished. All power to both Gaghan and Clooney for making
a film about as palatable as it can be to those who need
to see it, to understand it, to make change happen. Somehow,
I doubt that mere movies can alter any ongoing fundamental
political practices but it would be a real success if Syriana
managed to skew one American mind to the idea that its bush
needs pruning. When all narrative threads are knotted together,
there is a cathartic release that imprints the movie's dominant
central theme on the audience. It's not pretty. It may be
true but even if it isn't, it feels like it should be.
Syriana opens in UK cinemas on 3rd March 2006.