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12 reviews, 67 user ratings

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by Robert Flaxman

"Oil wells won't end well."
5 stars

As if we needed any more proof that the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is an immensely tangled, complex web of issues that may well never be completely resolved, along comes Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, a densely knotted series of plot strands that does nothing so much as prove with its structure why the world’s most volatile region is so difficult for most of us to fully understand.

If Steven Spielberg’s Munich presents a look largely at Middle East events past, Syriana is certainly the present – one in which the United States plays an increasingly dominant role in Middle Eastern politics. While the multiple narratives and various characters don’t make Syriana a very easy film to follow, one main theme appears to emerge: The Middle East is in turmoil, and America’s lust for cheap oil and global ideological domination is only making things worse.

It’s rather amazing that Gaghan managed to release such a politically charged film – especially one that appears to criticize his home country quite harshly – under a major studio umbrella. Perhaps the studio simply had a hard time figuring out what Gaghan was actually saying. Syriana is definitely not the most obvious film in the world; anyone looking for entertainment should stay away, because this one is most certainly a thinker, and failure to pay attention will be punished by the film’s pace.

To actually break down the plot would be impossible, particularly in such a small space. Instead, consider a couple of points in the film where Gaghan’s thesis seems to shine through with particular clarity. In one plot, corporate lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is assigned to look into a prospective merger between oil companies and find dirt – before the government can do so. Bennett then goes to the federal prosecutor and offers up a deal. Opposed at one point by the now-infamous Tim Blake Nelson speech about how corruption is what makes America what it is, Bennett seems like a beacon of moral clarity, rooting out the corruption in his midst. In truth, of course, Bennett is really employed by Big Oil, and his job is not to fight corruption but to figure out which parts of it are most expendable to his employers while simultaneously looking like big game to Uncle Sam.

Gaghan’s point is clear: the oil industry is corruption itself, and the federal government is mostly content to look the other way, making a nominal effort to clean things up but ultimately taking what they can get and not trying very hard for more. Meanwhile, Gaghan depicts a CIA that makes an attempt on the life of a prospective Persian Gulf emir, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), by sending in field veteran Bob Barnes (George Clooney). When the contact in Lebanon turns out to have been a setup, Bob is nearly killed, only to find that because of the publicity generated, the CIA is now disowning him after years of service.

The critique in this plot is also clear: the United States is not afraid to be something of a world bully, throwing its weight around when it feels threatened. Prince Nasir is hardly depicted as another Saddam Hussein – speaking with an English accent surely gleaned from years of study in Great Britain, Nasir discusses the importance of his country and his people. He has fallen onto America’s bad side by accepting a Chinese bid for the country’s oil rights, simply because they put in the highest offer. And America’s response? Attempted assassination and pressure on his ailing father to name Nasir’s younger brother, a puppet of the West, as successor instead.

The critique is sharp, blistering, and, one feels, all too accurate. Just because Gaghan is upset with American policy, however, doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel compelled to offer a warning as well. One plot shows how radical Islam – the kind that leads to suicide bombings and, on a larger scale, the 9/11 attacks – takes hold of young Muslims. Wasim (Mazhar Munir), a Pakistani Muslim who doesn’t even speak Arabic, finds himself in the Persian Gulf working for an American oil company. When the company abruptly cuts the workforce, Wasim is stateless and jobless – he ends up at an Islamic school, where he falls under the spell of a radical cleric teaching the evils of the West.

The lesson is obvious, especially when the suicide bombers’ weapon of choice turns out to be a missing CIA missile. America’s interest in the region is solipsistic, but worse than that, it’s just careless. The feeling is that we need the oil and it doesn’t matter how we have to get it – but no one seems to realize the effects on the population. As Robert Baer notes in See No Evil, the book that inspired Gaghan to write Syriana, radical Islamic tracts that advocate war on America are popping up in every Muslim community in the world, even in allies of ours like Great Britain. More frighteningly, America’s continued presence in the region is creating an entire generation of young Muslims who feel occupied by an unwelcome enemy who exploits their land and insults their culture.

9/11 is mentioned just once in Syriana, and even then in passing. Both Gulf Wars hardly get more of a mention. Gaghan is not interested in pinning his story to a specific time, and the scariest part is that it’s easy to picture such a story taking place at any time in the previous decade or a decade into the future. His caution echoes Baer’s – the United States has spent far too long viewing the Persian Gulf as little more than a resource. The suggestion – and one that seems borne out so far – is that you cannot defeat an enemy you do not understand or respect.

As strong as Gaghan’s ideas are, Syriana doesn’t always work. For one thing, there’s just too much going on. The many strands get hard to follow, especially where they interconnect; more problematically, Gaghan includes a bit too much character development, which drags at times. Stranger still, many seemingly important events take place offscreen and are alluded to rather than seen, which makes it feel like the film is trying to hide things somehow.

Despite some minor flaws, however, Gaghan has created a fine companion piece to 2000’s Traffic, his Oscar-winning screenplay on America’s struggles with the drug war. With Syriana, Gaghan takes on an even more dangerous topic and exposes it well. As subtly vicious as Syriana is, the people it attacks are nonetheless the very ones who should heed it most.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13517&reviewer=385
originally posted: 02/04/06 03:21:08
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User Comments

11/16/14 Kev J Post -911 powerplay? So where was Israel's hand? 4 stars
7/23/10 bagwell5 Really good film. Need to see twice to get it. 4 stars
7/05/09 R Lan Too many storylines. I have no idea why Clooney won an Oscar for this role! 2 stars
5/03/09 Joe Smaltz What the hell was that? 1 stars
9/04/08 Pokejedservo Overrated and feel a bit too long but has had plenty of good aspects as well. 3 stars
7/29/08 the dork knight Hey look, it's Dr. bashir from Deep Space Nine. Awesome. Add 1 more star. 4 stars
7/11/08 Sam Very good ..too long though .. 4 stars
3/02/08 ladavies Very complex, not sure I really understood everything. 4 stars
8/13/07 Annonomiss A smart person's thriller. Paid attention to get all the plot. Couldn't stand the torture! 3 stars
5/02/07 R.W.Welch Murky machinations in the weird world of the Middle East. Good, if a shade overplotted. 4 stars
3/01/07 Dan Nice to watch a movie where you have to think for a change. 5 stars
12/24/06 danielle Movie for rich people.Disgusting oil/poli peeps. 3 stars
11/07/06 BG so happy to see I was not the only one who did not understand this film! 1 stars
9/22/06 joesurf i feel that this movie can be watched backwards and it would confuse me just the same. 2 stars
9/20/06 Shelby This is a piece of Americana that should not go unnoticed. 5 stars
9/16/06 Loop the gab not viewer-friendly but containing important themes 3 stars
8/24/06 Been There Done That Politically motivated, unrealistic, disingenuous, horse hockey 1 stars
8/14/06 John Watson Completely incomprehensible and alienating. I suddenly love Big Oil. 1 stars
7/17/06 Monday Morning Why were story, characters and interworkings so obtuse? Still was way above average. 4 stars
7/16/06 JenDenmark If you are super intelligent, then you will admit that it's crap! 1 stars
7/16/06 Wiseman You have to be a Intellegent superhuman to understand this one, dont watch if u ar dumb 1 stars
7/15/06 MikeDenmark Utterly intelligent & brilliant! Shows something about the workings of politics. 5 stars
7/11/06 MickT If you don't get it or find dull, the you are just plain DUMB! 5 stars
6/25/06 nathan excellent, complicated, powerful, well acted, but not as good as "traffic" 4 stars
6/23/06 The Talking Elbow Movie is highly disjointed Hollywood tripe that goes over your head almost on purpose. 1 stars
6/07/06 Barry Very rare to find a good movie with such realism like this, I LOVED IT! 5 stars
4/17/06 matt it was ok, I didn't understand it all though 3 stars
4/14/06 Steve Newman Great film - dont get drunk before you watch it - apr 06 4 stars
3/31/06 Brianna Holden Worst Jane Austen adaptation ever. Chaos of chaosses. 1 stars
3/17/06 MP Bartley Not as complex as people say. Engrossing, but tough to love. 4 stars
3/12/06 Roderick Cromar Gripping. I'll have to buy the book to discover what happened. 4 stars
3/04/06 HH Very accurate in the world it depicts, not an easy romcom in all regards. 5 stars
2/27/06 john bale Thought provoking though complex plot should concern us all. Clooney excells again. 4 stars
2/18/06 rich kramer the comments of other reviewers who felt it was not viewer friendly reflected my reactions! 2 stars
2/16/06 Soha Molina average 3 stars
2/09/06 elendil Rent it with a friend so you can hit pause and discuss to keep up 5 stars
2/04/06 BertRito I had no idea what was going on, yet somehow it was still OK. 3 stars
1/23/06 Donna A simple story made unnecessarily complicated. Dreary and depressing. Don't waste your time 2 stars
1/22/06 ajay I think I'm sorta intelligent, but I walked out confused and was relieved it was over. 2 stars
1/16/06 marini nielazaya like Collin Souter, I felt pretty stupid after watching it, but I think it was an important 4 stars
1/12/06 Sunny "Nice Try but NO." 2 stars
12/31/05 Faustus Smart, fast-paced and current with excellent writing, directing and acting. Fantastic film. 5 stars
12/30/05 Agent Sands Well-made, well-acted, but you've got to have a knowledge for the subject matter to follow. 4 stars
12/29/05 jcjs excellent, i even understood most of it the first time...fine work..a waring too 5 stars
12/23/05 Dee Sewell Boring not a thriller 2 stars
12/19/05 Pete Phelan rates in the all-time top 100 (even if you have to see it twice - I did) 5 stars
12/19/05 T.C. Fucking awesome 5 stars
12/17/05 ownerofdajoint A brilliant depiction of the malevolence created my mankind's super dependence on petroleum 5 stars
12/16/05 jeff have 2 b from the middle east to understand this movie. 5 stars
12/16/05 KingNeutron Interminable, brutal, stultifying, and Confusing. 2 stars
12/15/05 MV Where do the producers get the money for such an awful movie. Was the studio asleep? 1 stars
12/15/05 John Interesting, but no new info about our oil-based foreign policy. 4 stars
12/14/05 Ryan Great cast, good idea, but not well developed. 3 stars
12/14/05 millersxing Only thing "The Insider" or "Traffic" have on "Syriana" is more familiar subject matter. 5 stars
12/14/05 David That makes two of us. Couldn't agree more. 4 stars
12/13/05 dick runman confusing and sometimes boring 3 stars
12/10/05 James Wimmers I seldom ask for my money back 1 stars
12/10/05 Bentable ZzZzZ 2 stars
12/10/05 Mark Green 2 stars
12/10/05 varyouga putting politics aside, the story and character development was complete crap. boring 1 stars
12/09/05 Sergio Pretentous and confusing 2 stars
12/06/05 Christine Hill ~ ClooneyNetwork.com Incredible! Thought Provoking. 5 stars
12/05/05 Carolyn Interesting to watch unfold but doesn't leave any impact on you 4 stars
11/29/05 Booyah Boy If you ever wondered why the US is so hated... 5 stars
11/26/05 Gary Savatsky Glib, anti american, superficial 2 stars
11/23/05 Todd Corruption? In the Oil business? I had no idea. 4 stars
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  23-Nov-2005 (R)
  DVD: 20-Jun-2006



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