by Bill Gallagher
Despite some strong performances, cool explosions and a riveting torture
scene, “Syriana” feels more like a seminar than a movie.
Sometimes called “message movies,” productions such as this are supposed
to leave the audience informed, influenced and entertained. The problem
with “Syriana” though, is that it assumes you’re already well-informed in the
ways of the world when it comes to Big Oil, the CIA, Islamic Jihadism, and
the dirty secrets of lobbying in Washington, D.C. If you read The Economist,
the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal you’ll
be able to follow the twists and turns of this over-stuffed plot. Otherwise, sit
back and enjoy those explosions and a killer cast.
It dawned on me that Director/Writer Stephen Gaghan was taking the
teaching function of this movie way too seriously when he has the earnest oil
industry analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) tell his wife that an Arab
prince he wants to work for is not only wealthy as hell, but hey, he has
ideals. “He wants real democracy….like Mossadegh in Iran in 1952,” he
tells her excitedly.
Now, a lot of you know all about the coup which set Mohammad Mossadegh
aside for the reign of the Shah on the Peacock Throne in Tehran back in the
early ’50s. But do most moviegoers? I kind of doubt it. So when Gaghan
uses that line to make a major point about a central character you’ve got to
wonder what he’s thinking.
Is there going to be a quiz after the movie?
As if that reference to Mossadegh isn’t sufficiently historically obscure, he
throws in a plot stream that sends the seasoned-but-expendable CIA
operative Bob Barnes (George Clooney) to Beirut for a rendezvous with
Hezbollah. He’s there to enlist the help he needs to kill the aforementioned
Arab prince, I think. But the situation goes south, and he ends up being
subjected to the same kind of torture techniques the Chinese use on members
of Falun Gong. We learn that because his Lebanese torturer tells him so.
Now seriously, can you really imagine such an exchange taking place in a
Beirut torture chamber? I guess Gaghan wants us to know that tidbit, but would it be the kind of information shared by a man about to pull one’s
fingernails out with pliers?
Gaghan won the Academy Award for the screenplay he wrote for “Traffic.”
“Syriana” is structured the way “Traffic” was, with a number of sub-plots
feeding the central premise that as long as people want to do drugs, and
there’s boatloads of money to be made supplying that demand, the war on
drugs is futile. “Syriana” has the sub-plots—more on those in a minute—but
I’ll be damned if I’m certain what the central premise is.
It’s a movie about corruption. That’s what connects the dots to a certain
extent. There’s even a speech on the subject delivered by an apologist for the
oil industry and its aggressive lobbying and generous campaign
contributions. “Corruption is our protection. Corruption is how we win,”
shouts Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) on the steps of a government
building. Eventually he’s thrown under the bus by being fed to a Department
of Justice investigation into the merger of two oil companies.
To make his points about corruption and Big Oil, Gaghan tries to weave
together the following (don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz at the end of this
• Veteran CIA agent Bob Barnes (Clooney), who sells a couple of Stinger
missiles to Iranians. Unfortunately one of them falls into the wrong hands.
Don’t forget the missing missile. It’s bound to show up before “Syriana” is
over. Despite that screw-up, Barnes catches the assignment to kill an Arab
prince who’s the threat to the fortunes of a big American oil company. Yes,
this is the same prince that Damon’s character sees as the great hope of the
desert. That mission takes Barnes to Beirut where he’s tortured, back to
Washington, D.C., where he wises up, and finally to the unnamed Emirate
where he tries to save the life of the man he was told by his CIA handlers
was a terrorist but actually just got in the way of Big Oil. Bob is expendable.
• A disgruntled, disenfranchised Pakistani oil field worker, Wasim Khan
(Mazhar Munir. Who?), who loses his job because those two American oil
companies merge. Thus begins his journey through unemployment to a
madrassa where he’s indoctrinated into a jihad and becomes a suicide
bomber. Remember that missing Stinger missile? Enough said. As far as I
know, this is the first time a suicide bomber’s motivation can be traced to a
job loss. Wasim is also expendable. • A powerful, protected Washington, D.C., lawyer/lobbyist Dean Whiting
(Christopher Plummer), who works the system masterfully for his Big Oil
clients and Middle East royalty, one of whom dares to call him “the cat’s
paw of the Saudi princes.”
• The rising star in the powerful, protected lawyer/lobbyist’s firm Bennett
Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), who must tend to the dirty work of getting
Department of Justice approval for the merger of the two oil companies. The
merger becomes an economic necessity for the bigger of the two companies,
Connex, because it lost its drilling rights in the unnamed Emirate to the
Chinese. It wants to join forces with the smaller company, Killen, because it
has drilling rights in Kazakhstan. If the truth of how it won those rights (can
you say, corruption?) becomes known, the deal is off.
• The idealistic Prince Nasir (Alexander Whittig), who has crossed Connex
and apparently the United States government by convincing his father the
Emir to grant drilling rights to the Chinese instead of the Texans. This puts
him on the hit list of the CIA and ultimately costs him his succession to the
throne, which somehow goes to his brother, the “bad” prince. Add Prince
Nasir to the ranks of the expendable.
• The oil industry analyst (Damon), who’s quite glib with the kind of smart-
sounding sound bites that networks like CNBC thrive on. But his six-year-
old son dies in a swimming pool accident at the estate of the Emir. Working
through his grief he hooks up with the “good” prince but loses his wife Julie
(Amanda Peet) and his surviving son in the process.
I could go on and tell you about the retired CIA agent Stan (William Hurt)
who gave up government spying for private security because he’s got two
kids in college “and we’re redoing our kitchen,” but by now you should get
the point: “Syriana” is like a two-hour lecture with sub-plots on our dangerous
dependence on oil from the Middle East. It’s a complex topic, and I’m not
looking for a dumbed-down version of what’s really going on. A sharper
focus on one or two aspects of this unfolding real-life drama might have
better illustrated the intersection of energy dependence and terrorism.
Instead, Gaghan tries to throw so much at the wall that what ultimately
sticks is the thought that, “Yeah, it’s complex. But those were some cool
A final note about Gaghan. I’m amazed that I’ve never seen anyone call him
out for his heavy dependence on a BBC series called “Traffic” for his
screenplay for the American movie “Traffic.” Check it out for yourself.
Some libraries have it and you can get it through services such as Netflix.
The British version is, for me, superior to the American movie. Now that
I’ve seen Gaghan’s “Syriana” I’ve got to wonder if he didn’t succeed with
“Traffic” because he copped the coherent structure from the work of others.
Bill Gallagher is the News Director at AM 860 KPAM – the Talk Station and
writes the monthly Movie Review column for BrainstormNW.
BrainstormNW - December 2005