Hippo Manchester
December 15, 2005


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Film: Syriana (R)  B+

by Amy Diaz

George Clooney is one of many people getting kicked around by Big Oil in the multi-layered Syriana, a sort of travelogue for your oil, from its home in unstable parts of the world to its resting place in your SUV.

Which is not to say that Syriana is shrill or scolding or angry in any way other than the desperate way in which people get angry when they have no better options than the bad options in front of them.

The bad options in front of Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig) are (a) to let his wastrel older brother become king of their oil-rich, everything-else-poor country and watch as money that Westerners pay for oil is squandered on yachts and lavish parties and (b) to get into business with China, attempt to shunt the money from the oil sale into social programs and risk the wrath of the United States.

Attempting to help him successfully navigate the minefield of option two is Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an energy analyst. Bryan can’t get Al-Subaai to even talk to him until Bryan’s young son is accidentally electrocuted during a party for Al-Subaai’s father. The boy’s death gets Bryan some sympathy and gives him a bluntness that makes Al-Subaai trust him. But Bryan may not be able to help Nasir convince his father that going against America’s wishes, even to benefit their countrymen, is the way to go.

Why? Meet Bob Barnes (Clooney), a CIA agent who is hired to — among other things — give a demonstration in why you don’t want to be some piss-poor Middle Eastern kingdom whose elite gets rich off oil. But, when some things go wrong with his work (ending in a fingernail-removal session that will make you full-body-cringe), Bob starts to rethink his plans. He comes to believe that the government is going to make him a patsy for its dirty work.

And he won’t be the only one. When an oil deal goes wrong for some members of the Big Oil world, they begin their own investigation as to which corruption is working for them and which is working against them.

In the end, the movie suggests, the corruption and viciousness in energy trading hurts us all because, as we see in yet another of the film’s storylines, it can sometimes indirectly lead to terrorism. When a buyout of one oil company by another puts a group of Pakistani immigrants to the Middle East out of work, one of the younger men falls into the sway of a terrorist group, as much because its leaders offer to help his mother immigrate from Pakistan as for any other reason, it seems.

Whether you feel this last bit, coupled with all the Texas accents of the oil men, is part of some liberal propaganda machine or a long-delayed bit of truth-telling is not something the movie will help you decide — you’ll undoubtedly walk into the theater firm in your belief in the superiority of your team. What Syriana does well as far as its political themes is demonstrate consequences of consumption. Forget about the environment or the price of gasoline for a minute — each gallon of gas affects the politics of the world in a way that is easy to forget until that politics literally explodes. No matter where you stand, seeing these consequences is intellectually fascinating.

As entertainment, Syriana is a tense, tightly woven thriller that might not entirely live up to its hype but does make for an exciting and surprisingly fast-paced story.