Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a veteran CIA agent nearing the end of a long and respectable career, with a son (Max Minghella) headed for college and the possibility of spending the latter days of his service in a cushy desk job. On Bob's last assignment, one of two Stinger missiles he is providing for a covert assassination falls into the wrong hands. Bob is promised a promotion after one last undercover mission - assassinating the independently minded Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig). But when one of his field contacts double crosses him, Bob is disowned and betrayed by the CIA. He begins to realise that he has been just a pawn and never privy to the real motivation for the assignments he has carried out for years.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's "complicated" Bob Barnes (George Clooney) repeats a couple of times through the film, referring to the Middle East in general and the oil business in particular. Dead right, Bob, and so is the film, intentionally so, as writer/director Stephen Gaghan sets out to reflect the complex and difficult times in which we live. "There are no good guys or bad guys, and there are no easy answers ... the stories don't wrap up neat little life lessons, the questions remain open," he says.
At the end of the credits, we are advised that while the film was inspired by a non-fiction book, the film is entirely fictional. This is honest, for the film's core elements (those we can decipher on first viewing) are more like those of a contemporary Hollywood film set in the dramatised/fictionalised and corrupting world of international oil dealing. And the book which inspired it was written at a time when the author served in the Middle East - some 20 - 30 years ago. The film is clearly intended to discredit the CIA and Big Oil. So yes, there are baddies, for without them the film wouldn't work. And yes there are goodies, too.
The film has prompted US film critic (American Spectator and The New York Sun) and resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington, James Bowman, to suggest that Syriana is "putting forward the bizarre contention that the major threat to the progressive forces of democracy, economic liberalisation and women's rights in the Middle East comes not from terrorist jihadists but from - you guessed it - the CIA in cahoots with Big Oil."
I mention all this to put the film in some kind of context, because it does deal with hot political issues of the day, ranging from the megabuck-driven politics of oil in the US, and the Middle East, through Arab traditionalism versus modern economics, family conflicts and sibling rivalry on a scale that can affect world peace - and suicide bombing. The two nice Pakistani youths sucked into extremism by a fundamentalist is one of the film's most potent, and most successful sub-plots.
Gaghan's filmmaking style in Syriana seems to be modelled on the grasshopper, jumping with volatile acceleration from place to place and story point to story point. Except this is not a holistic story, more a set of people within a jigsaw of explosive politics, money and power.
It's a fascinating (and yes, complicated) film, totally engrossing and boasting high voltage tension throughout, propelled by excellent performances, full and satisfying, memorable characters, all drawn from intelligent writing. The ending, cinematically climactic of course, is nevertheless the film's weak point for me; it punches home Gaghan's editorial point most successfully, but I can't see how to make any logical, storytelling sense of it. See for yourself, but don't take the film as anything more than a Hollywood movie made for an adult demographic.
Review by Louise Keller:
Big business, political point scoring, underhanded deals and espionage are the themes of Syriana, a tight-rope thriller that picks ferociously at the dirty fingernails of world issues. Those balancing precariously are the manipulators as well as the innocents who are swept along with the tide, drowning in the surge of greed. Capitalism definitely cannot exist without waste. George Clooney, complete with greying beard, solid girth and crumpled suit inhabits the soul of veteran CIA agent Bob Barnes with voracity, as he learns that loyalty has no value.
Never mind that the myriad of strands take an age to intersect, or that it takes a good deal of concentration to keep abreast of the plot that zips from Iran to Texas, Switzerland, Spain, the Persian Gulf and beyond. Or that there are many key characters that play an integral role and can initially confuse. This is a film that warrants your attention. Writer/ director Stephen Gaghan's complex screenplay is structured similarly to his award-winning Traffic, whose main theme of illicit drugs is replaced by that of oil. Chris Cooper, Jeffrey Wright, Christopher Plummer and Matt Damon bring their gravitas to their roles, as corruption shows its many faces.
Former CIA agent Robert Baer's memoirs, See No Evil, is the springboard of the film, although it often feels like a documentary, immersing us deep into far-flung locations and confronting us with issues that could be reportage. The percussive score taps suspense as we venture from high-level boardrooms to audiences with Middle Eastern royalty and the uncertainty of young Pakistanis whose sudden unemployment lassos them into a warped obligation of martyrdom.
A potent and intelligent film that informs as well as entertains, Syriana is the starting point for an intense and lengthy conversation. May we all converse.
Email this article
CAST: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Max Minghella, Amanda Peet, Alexander Siddig, Amr Waked, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Mazhar Munir, Tim Blake Nelson, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper
PRODUCER: Jennifer Fox, Georgia Kacandes, Michael Nozik
DIRECTOR: Stephen Gaghan
SCRIPT: Stephen Gaghan (book by Robert Baer)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robert Elswit
EDITOR: Tim Squyres
MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Dan Weil
RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 16, 2006