Syriana, a movie by Stephen Gaghan

July 28, 2006

In mild contrast to talking about the over-hyped Michael Moore, I’ve decided to recommend far more strongly the movies of another leftist American. Step forward, Stephen Gaghan, writer/director without peer.

Back in March, Naselus and I went to the cinema to watch what I think is one of the most sophisticated and telling political thrillers to come out of the USA for about three decades – perhaps ever. Syriana is a fictitious story about the oil industry, which is based on the genuine experiences of a CIA agent over the course of a twenty-plus year career. Its criticisms manage to hit with stunning accuracy all its targets in the fields of oil, commerce, Middle Eastern governments, Intelligence services, the illegal arms trade, state bureaucracy, the spread of terrorism, man-in-the-street ignorance, and Western exploitation of the Third World.

It’s a very complex tale, with four or five distinct but interwoven plot threads running through it; it is one of the great achievements of the film that the plot threads almost always run completely parallel to one another, rarely crossing over, and that most of the main protagonists never meet each other – probably are never even aware of each other – and yet it still makes clear throughout just how deeply all the factions affect everyone else involved.

The disgusting amorality of the CIA and America’s largest oil conglomerates is laid bare – their deliberate efforts to maintain, even to increase, the instability and political turmoil in the Middle East – as is the unawareness of the average American of his own goverment’s abuse of weaker nations.

Not only is the storyline of Syriana unusually complex, but the characters are refreshingly 3D for an American movie as well, and this brings out some very fine performances from the cast; –

George Clooney, who also does a great job as exec producer, is on unusually splendid form as Bob Barnes, a disillusioned CIA man who tries hard to remain loyal to the Agency against his own better judgement. His disillusionment stems less from a bruised conscience – he still retains the foolish notion that his work is for the betterment of Mankind – than from a growing despair at the CIA’s willful negligence and incompetence; Barnes remains a ruthless and brutal anti-hero to the end. Clooney really gets his teeth into this role, proving that he truly can act on those rare occasions when he’s given a script worth the bother of reading.

Alexander Siddig (Dr. Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) makes for an outstandingly sympathetic Prince Nasir, an Arab aristocrat wishing to modernise and democratise his homeland. Throughout the story he is caught in two desperate struggles. One is a power struggle with his spiteful and feckless younger brother for the right to become the next Emir. The other is with his own conscience; his personal loyalty to his ailing father is forever at loggerheads with his wider loyalty to his country, which is angered and offended time and again by his father always kowtowing to American pressure. (US corporate interference in and exploitation of these kinds of relationships happens with great frequency, and is demonstrated here with scathing precision.)

Matt Damon hits heights he has never reached before – though admittedly he’s still less-than-brilliant – as Bryan Woodman, a professional media analyst on the US energy industry, based in Geneva. An upwardly-mobile man from middle America, his happy family life is destroyed by tragedy indirectly linked to the Arab Emir, which draws him into Nasir’s close confidence in the struggle to rebuild the Prince’s homeland. Wrongly convinced at first that the Arab Kingdom’s failing economy and backward infrastructure are exclusively the fault of its Royal Family, Woodman shows both exceptional technical intelligence as an oilman, and breathtaking political vacuousness, until Nasir opens his eyes to the realities of American interference in the running of Middle Eastern states. Damon does well to convey a willful ignorance, symbolic of so many Americans and right-wing Europeans, and the light that switches on in Woodman’s eyes as the disturbing truth dawns on him will be all-too-familiar to many of us who have had to explain these things to uninformed people in the past.

A special mention must also go to Jeffrey Wright, who plays a mild-mannered lawyer called Bennett Holliday. Holliday is investigating possible corruption in a merger between two of America’s biggest oil firms. Most of the time, Holliday appears to be a gentle, awkward, even mousy fellow, way out his depth when confronting a pool full of the oil industry’s biggest sharks, both in Texas and in Washington. Wright does brilliantly to disguise the lion hidden in sheep’s clothing (to paraphrase dialogue in the film); the ruthless, opportunistic self-interest in Holliday comes as a real surprise when it reveals itself.

Without wanting to give anything away, the end of the film is poignant and demonstrates with much accuracy the sort of ironic consequences that Western bullying of the Middle East will have. The hollowness and hypocrisy of The War Against Terror is made plain, as is the manipulative nature of the teachings of many radical Imams in the Middle East (and how easy the West makes it for them to be so manipulative in the first place). Most of all though, the motivations many a desperate young man in the Middle East feels for becoming a terrorist become, though still not forgivable, at least very understandable.

The only problem with Syriana is that, being so rich with plot, at only two hours in length it can be a bit difficult keeping track of certain threads; it’s certainly awkward remembering which particular oilman Holliday is investigating at certain moments, and which particular ones he’s dealing with or against. It can be exhausting trying to sort through the confused rush of details.

But this is perhaps intentional, as it serves to underline one of the many, very shrewd, messages the film is trying to put forward; the situation in the oil industry, and especially in the Gulf of Arabia, is so complex and so confused (partly because the US oil industry wishes it to be so), that no one can know all the important details, even though so many officials in the CIA and the US government think that they do. No one can see the big picture, and yet the more that picture becomes blurred, the more belligerently and carelessly Western governments choose to behave.

Naselus was perhaps less impressed with Syriana than I was, but he still agrees that it’s a fine film that puts forward an important message that too many people in the West refuse to understand. Beyond doubt, it’s a very brave film to release in the present climate of enforced-patriotism in the US media. Whatever else we may think of Warner Bros as a company, we must give them enormous credit for the courage they displayed in choosing to press ahead with the project. Such an honest, eloquent, and intelligent indictment of Western behaviour in the Middle East has never before come out of the US media – certainly not in the overexposed, tabloid-mannered and distortion-riddled rantings of Michael Moore – and probably not from anywhere in the UK either. The overwhelming weight of the content – including a truly blood-curdling torture scene involving a prominent Hezbollah agent – and the many disturbing themes addressed, make Syriana a difficult film actually to love, but even so, it commands untold respect, and I cannot recommend loudly or strongly enough that people watch it.

(Go to to download the trailer, the full screenplay, and a recording of a press conference given by the makers of the movie the day after it premiered in the US; well worth listening to in its own right.)


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