2006-07-12 08:39


A car bomb explodes in downtown Teheran. A small Texas-based company wins the rights to drill Kazakhstan's richest oil fields and suddenly merges with another, much bigger energy company. The idealistic young prince of an energy-rich Persian Gulf state grants rights to his country's natural gas resources to a Chinese firm instead of an American one. A group of migrant labourers lose their jobs at a natural gas processing plant and are threatened with deportation unless they find new jobs. A veteran CIA agent on his final field mission becomes a scapegoat for his country's misdeeds. Though these seem like random, isolated events, they are really pieces of a vast and terrible conspiracy that spans the globe - a conspiracy that we come to know intimately as we follow it from Washington to Beirut, and from boardroom to slum.


This year's Oscar nominations are dominated by films with political significance - from the personal (sexual orientation in Brokeback Mountain) to the historical (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Munich). But no other film comes close to addressing the kind of range of significance as Syriana.

With its eight interconnected stories, Syriana essentially traces the consequences of a merger between two oil companies, from the loftiest halls of American government, right down to the Pakistani labourers made destitute as a consequence of this merger.

A movie with this kind of grand ambition and global scope could easily have devolved into a dry, sermonising docu-drama. In fact the only thing that keeps it from doing so is writer / director Stephen Gaghan's masterpiece of a screenplay. As he did with his Academy Award winning screenplay for Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, Gaghan manages to capture both the globally significant and the deeply personal without ever seeming forced or false.

As fine a piece of work as Traffic was, Syriana definitely represents an evolution for Gaghan. Its examination of power relations is far more subtle than Traffic's broad strokes, and its dialogue is more finely crafted - pared down to the very bones of necessity. The screenplay also handles more characters across a far wider gamut of humanity, and speaks confidently in a half a dozen languages.

Because of the great complexity packed into Gaghan's narrative and the subtlety with which it is told, Syriana requires your full attention. This is a movie that expects you to constantly read between the lines, to think about everything that is said and to remember details on which it touches only briefly. There aren't any swaggering cap-toothed action-heroes to clear up the confusion in a few witty sentences. This is a movie that assumes you want to think, and doesn't care if it leaves you behind.

Some may find this apparent impenetrability tiring or annoying, but the rewards of keeping up with the movie's pace are well worth the effort. Because it never spells anything out to you, all the revelations in Syriana feel like your own. What's more, because it never feels the need to dumb-down or sex-up any of its machinations, you frequently get the sense that you are seeing things as they really happen. Many people will not like the sordid and grubby underbelly that Syriana reveals to the world, but it has ring of truth that simply can't be ignored.

But Gaghan's character-driven screenplay would have been dead in the water without a cast willing and able to bring it to life. Luckily, thanks in part to his connections with industry moguls like George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, Gaghan has the pick of the bunch. The film has not one bad performance, with many of the cast giving their all in small and largely unrewarding parts.

Apart from the obvious brilliance of Clooney's Oscar nominated turn, the movie sees a number of other fine actors at the top of their form. Matt Damon excels as a young energy analyst, as does Chris Cooper as a callous oil baron. The brilliant but little known Jeffrey Wright brings a fine control and quiet confidence to the challenging role of attorney Bennet Holiday. Veteran thespian Christopher Plummer makes the most of his small part as a machiavellian lawyer, oozing charm and menace is equal quantities. But it is Alexander Siddig who really stands out as the high-minded Prince Nasir. If this film doesn't get him noticed, nothing will.

Given how exquisitely crafted Syriana is, it's easy to forget that the film is only Gaghan's second project as a director. While he was ably assisted by a world-class crew (including cinematographer Robert Elswit who is nominated for an Oscar for Good Night and Good Luck), you have to give credit to the man who seems to be growing into an auteur of considerable powers.

Syriana is not an easy movie to watch. Even if you agree with its political standpoint, seeing the dark underbelly of humanity exposed is never going to be edifying. But it is a courageous, important and admirable film. It brings home the hidden costs of our comfortable lives and the consequences of our inaction, without ever descending into rhetoric or preaching. Watch it today - it will open your eyes.

- Alistair Fairweather

A fascinating political thriller about the wide reaching effects of corruption in the global oil industry. This multi-Oscar nominated film should not be missed.

Zee 2006/03/02 1:17 PM
Syriana I haven't watched the movie yet but i'm sure it is gonna be an Oscar-winning success. North Country
Tyra 2006/03/05 3:47 PM
Syriana Tedious, disjointed, relentless, ugly.
Quicksmile 2006/03/05 4:31 PM
Syriana Spellbinding... captivating, insist that you keep your eyes on the screen. The acting is brilliant. The ending almost leaves one with a sense of helplessnes. This movie straddles the lines of entertainment and education though. Zathura... a very entertaining movie, not only for kids, but for grown ups as well.
Neshica 2006/03/06 1:23 PM
Syriana - question world events Syriana is an eye-opening look at the powerful yet corrupt world of Oil. Makes you wonder: Is Iran's uranium enrichment project a nuclear threat or do the Oil Tycoons want something else? Syriana
Rosemary 2006/03/13 7:46 AM
Syriana Difficult to get into at first, but outherwise a very good movie. Pride and Prejudice
paul 2006/12/29 1:54 PM
Good very intense and dark but nonetheless superbly acted - engrossing and informative
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