Nightlife

Syriana (Widescreen Edition)

by Jennifer Bubriski
Contributor
Tuesday Jun 20, 2006
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Think of Syriana, now on DVD as the anti-summer blockbuster. Not only is it rich in plot and interesting characters, it also shows you, in a fictional-but-based-in-enough-truth-to-be-terrifying way, the cost of gasoline for all those car chases in all those summer blockbusters. Although for a film that deals in such a morally gray area actually paints things as a little too black and white, it’s compelling stuff that makes it well worth the effort of actually paying attention while watching the movie instead of just letting the sensory overload of the action (and there is action) wash over you.

In the vein of director/screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s Traffic and the multiple-plotlines-forming-a-greater-whole Oscar-winning Crash, Syriana weaves together four stories of characters who deal in the oil industry and how the United States’ unwritten pact to allow corruption to flourish in the Middle East in order to protect regimes that are friendly to U.S. business and providing cheap oil. George Clooney, more unrecognizable for the eerie death-of-the-soul look in his eyes than for the weight he gained in his Oscar-winning role, plays Bob Barnes, a CIA agent still haunted by events in Beirut and consumed with finding out just what happened to a missile that was lifted during ones of his jobs in Iraq. Jeffrey Wright is Bennett Holiday, who’s performing an internal investigation of possible corruption at Kileen Oil that might stop the merger between that company and energy behemoth Connex. Add in Matt Damon as a commodities whiz who ends up as financial advisor to a prince (Alexander Siddig - where have you seen him before? OK, fellow geeks, he’s Dr. Julian Bashir of television’s Deep Space Nine) of an unnamed oil rich Middle Eastern country who’s not only fighting to bring actual economic change and democratic principles to his people but also battling his idle-rich-and-loving-it brother for control. Don’t forget the smallest but most interesting subplot of two Pakistani young men being recruited by an Islamic fundamentalist group.

It goes without saying that the script is brilliant - just look at the names of actors with major talent willing to play minor roles just to be in the film - Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Tim Blake Nelson (who raises nebbishy whining to an art form with his "Corruption is why we win" line), and William Hurt all add gravitas and texture to the film. The only glaring flaw is the anti- "meet cute" means by which Damon’s character meets up with Siddig’s. In fact, the film is so good, you’ll realize the lost opportunities only well after enjoying its twists, turns and double-barreled climax. It would have been even more interesting to explore some of the shades of gray in the black and white good and evil of the characters. Yes, perhaps Bob’s fellow CIA spooks are working for the best interests of the U.S., but the dastardly things they do to Bob and other characters so well played that we care about them seem to be pretty obviously, well, bad guy things to do. And Siddig’s oil baron emir is so righteous that the film skips over far too quickly his possible ties to terrorism. That’s what makes the story of Pakistani Wasim being lured over to Islamic fundamentalists so compelling; yes, we as an American audience know that the people who are befriending him will likely do evil, destructive things later in the movie, but they offer him so much more companionship, respect and quality of life than anyone else in the movie that you can see why these fundamentalist groups are so effective in recruiting in real life.

The special features are disappointingly light. Although the three deleted scenes restore Greta Scacchi’s performance as Bob’s wife, director Gaghan was right to cut them. Their deletion means that Bob is the only major character whose private, family life receives but a shred of screen time, and the character is better for the utter isolation in which this places him.

The featurette "A Conversation with George Clooney" doesn’t involve a solid nine minutes of George’s talking head (not that that would be a bad thing), but instead serves as more of a making-of look at the movie. Clooney covers casting, Bob Baer (the former CIA agent on whom Clooney’s character is based), his physical transformation for the role, how he had to learn Arabic phonetically and more, plus some nice behind-the-scenes footage.

The feature "Make a Change, Make a Difference" involves interviews with cast, director and producers on the topic of how the first world lifestyle means an implicit pact to keep the instability and despotic regimes in the Middle East going, including visible and hidden help from the U.S. government. Since it’s kept brief enough not to get too heavy handed, the feature remains interesting, although it won’t tell you what you don’t already suspect about the consequences of driving your SUV or cranking your air conditioner to the max. Despite all the great dialogue in the film, it’s this feature that contains the line that’s stuck with me the most. In speaking about how he was awed with the devotion to the faith of Islam that he witnessed when in Morocco, seeing people three times a day stop whatever they were doing, even stop their cars in the middle of the road and get out, in order to face Mecca and pray, Clooney says, "Anybody who thinks you can bomb that out of somebody, really needs to travel more."

Jennifer has an opinion on pretty much everything and is always happy to foist it upon others.

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