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Awesome: 24.46%
Worth A Look30.94%
Average: 19.42%
Pretty Bad: 17.27%
Total Crap: 7.91%

12 reviews, 67 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Gaghan drills deep and hits the mother lode."
5 stars

The effect of watching the new political thriller “Syriana” is a lot like trying to watch and comprehend an entire year’s worth of Sunday morning political chat shows in 127 minutes. It takes a complicated subject–the oil industry and how America’s dependence on the substance can have an impact on millions of seemingly random lives around the world–and approaches it in a direct manner that doesn’t try to simplify or dumb down an admittedly complex subject. The result is a film that is so overloaded with information that it may prove to be too dense and complex for some viewers. For those who are able to handle the rush of facts, figures and parallel plots, the end result is a powerhouse of a film–an ambitious work that takes a look at a subject that affects us all and does so in a manner that doesn’t pull punches or take the easy way out by employing a lot of glib generalities and simplified characters

The launching pad for all of the various stories and intrigues in “Syriana” is the decision by Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the reformist heir apparent to a vast Saudi oil empire, to break with the past and sign a contract giving exclusive oil rights to Chinese interests instead of the American conglomerate Connex Oil. To stave off the enormous financial blow, Connex is planning a merger with the Kemmer Corporation, a smaller oil company that has just signed a lucrative contract with Kazakhstan. As the merger is large enough to capture the interest of the Justice Department, a Connex bigwig (Christopher Plummer) hires ambitious Washington lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) to investigate in order to discover any potential hitches before the Feds discover them. At the same time, Connex tries to influence Nasir to reconsider his decision and when he refuses, various strings are pulled and CIA spook Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is sent over to eliminate him. To that end, things go badly and the agency leaves him for dead (one of the scariest scenes in the film shows his superiors concocting a cover story that will destroy Bob’s good name–leaving themselves perfectly in the clear–in a matter of seconds); when he unexpectedly survives, they place him under investigation so as to keep their own deeds quiet.

Meanwhile, energy consultant Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) tries to work his way into meeting with Nasir in order to drum up business for his firm. When an unimaginable tragedy strikes Bryan’s family during a party at Namir’s estate, the sorrowful prince makes him his chief consultant in a sincere effort to make amends–for Bryan, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and after some initial misgivings, he is soon traveling the world and showing Nasir how to double his profits using only a stick in the sand. However, this new business takes him further and further away from his bereaved wife (Amanda Peet), who is appalled at the thought that Woodman is somehow profiting off of their grief. At the same time, the merger also affects Wasim (Mazhar Munir), a young Arab who has just lost his refinery job as a result of the merger with the Chinese–at wits end, he finds himself falling under the spell of the charismatic leader of a Muslim terrorist group with an errant missile at their disposal.

With its multi-story approach to a single subject, “Syriana” may remind some viewers of “Traffic,” the 2000 film that took a similar approach to the subject of drugs in America. This is more than just a coincidence because it was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for writing “Traffic” for Steven Soderbergh. A story this complex and convoluted would be a challenge for even the most skilled filmmaker–let alone one whose only previous directing job was the lame Katie Holmes thriller “Abandon”–but Gaghan does a highly impressive job of juggling all of his various plot threads. His approach is an interesting one–he just plunges right into the muck while trusting that the viewer will be able to sort things out for themselves. At first, the onslaught of characters and information is a bit overwhelming and some of the early scenes can be confusing but they eventually become clearer as things progress. Another intelligent decision on Gaghan’s part is his refusal to make his story partisan in nature. In this film, names such as “Democrats,” “Republicans” and “Bush” are never once heard–the implication, of course, is that the American oil industry has becoming so powerful that it doesn’t really matter who is in charge because, with their money and influence, they have the goods on whomever is in power. Although some will be quick to dismiss this as anti-Bush propaganda, the sad truth about “Syriana” is that it could have been made just as easily either a few years ago during the Clinton administration or a few years in the future under our next president.

Another area in which “Syriana” is comparable with “Traffic” is in the gallery of great performances delivered by the enormous cast. Among the leads, Damon is interesting as a man whose grand plans and schemes aren’t quite enough to fill the emptiness in his life while Wright is equally strong as his polar opposite, a seemingly meek and quiet functionary who proves to be far more crafty than he initially appears. Among the smaller roles, there are quick and efficient turns from the likes of Chris Cooper (the shifty Kemmer Corp. Head), William Hurt (a “consultant” who offers wise counsel to Barnes at a key moment) and Tim Blake Nelson (a shifty lobbyist who may become the scapegoat necessary to gain approval for the Connex-Kemmer merger). The best performance of the bunch comes from George Clooney and not for the reasons you may think. By now, you have no doubt heard of the 35 pounds that he gained in order to better capture the gone-to-seed nature of his spook-with-a-conscience character. That may have earned him an enormous amount of publicity but it is his acting skills, not his belt size, that really sells his work her. An actor whose has gone from being a one-note TV personality to one of the more interesting personalities working in film today, he is utterly convincing as a loyal CIA agent who has unfailingly served the agency for decades and is stunned to discover that his lifetime of loyalty could amount in the end to so little.

With a film as narratively and structurally ambitious as “Syriana,” there are some inevitable hiccups and glitches–a running theme of estranged parent-child relationships leads to a number of otherwise pointless scenes involving the lawyer and his alcoholic father–and I am still a little fuzzy as to how the climactic events, in which all of the various plot threads wind up merging, come together–how does Clooney’s character know exactly where to go? However, in the big picture of the film, these are minor complaints indeed and I suspect that even these reservations may fade away upon another viewing. “Syriana” is a smart and angry film that doesn’t have all the answers and never tries to pretend that it does. Instead, it provides a lot of information and trusts that angry viewers will be inspired to look at the world around them and ask some hard questions of their own.

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originally posted: 12/09/05 15:59:54
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User Comments

11/17/14 Kev J Post -911 powerplay? So where was Israel's hand? 4 stars
7/24/10 bagwell5 Really good film. Need to see twice to get it. 4 stars
7/06/09 R Lan Too many storylines. I have no idea why Clooney won an Oscar for this role! 2 stars
5/04/09 Joe Smaltz What the hell was that? 1 stars
9/05/08 Pokejedservo Overrated and feel a bit too long but has had plenty of good aspects as well. 3 stars
7/30/08 the dork knight Hey look, it's Dr. bashir from Deep Space Nine. Awesome. Add 1 more star. 4 stars
7/12/08 Sam Very good ..too long though .. 4 stars
3/03/08 ladavies Very complex, not sure I really understood everything. 4 stars
8/13/07 Annonomiss A smart person's thriller. Paid attention to get all the plot. Couldn't stand the torture! 3 stars
5/02/07 R.W.Welch Murky machinations in the weird world of the Middle East. Good, if a shade overplotted. 4 stars
3/02/07 Dan Nice to watch a movie where you have to think for a change. 5 stars
12/24/06 danielle Movie for rich people.Disgusting oil/poli peeps. 3 stars
11/08/06 BG so happy to see I was not the only one who did not understand this film! 1 stars
9/23/06 joesurf i feel that this movie can be watched backwards and it would confuse me just the same. 2 stars
9/21/06 Shelby This is a piece of Americana that should not go unnoticed. 5 stars
9/17/06 Loop the gab not viewer-friendly but containing important themes 3 stars
8/25/06 Been There Done That Politically motivated, unrealistic, disingenuous, horse hockey 1 stars
8/15/06 John Watson Completely incomprehensible and alienating. I suddenly love Big Oil. 1 stars
7/18/06 Monday Morning Why were story, characters and interworkings so obtuse? Still was way above average. 4 stars
7/17/06 JenDenmark If you are super intelligent, then you will admit that it's crap! 1 stars
7/16/06 Wiseman You have to be a Intellegent superhuman to understand this one, dont watch if u ar dumb 1 stars
7/15/06 MikeDenmark Utterly intelligent & brilliant! Shows something about the workings of politics. 5 stars
7/12/06 MickT If you don't get it or find dull, the you are just plain DUMB! 5 stars
6/25/06 nathan excellent, complicated, powerful, well acted, but not as good as "traffic" 4 stars
6/23/06 The Talking Elbow Movie is highly disjointed Hollywood tripe that goes over your head almost on purpose. 1 stars
6/08/06 Barry Very rare to find a good movie with such realism like this, I LOVED IT! 5 stars
4/18/06 matt it was ok, I didn't understand it all though 3 stars
4/15/06 Steve Newman Great film - dont get drunk before you watch it - apr 06 4 stars
3/31/06 Brianna Holden Worst Jane Austen adaptation ever. Chaos of chaosses. 1 stars
3/18/06 MP Bartley Not as complex as people say. Engrossing, but tough to love. 4 stars
3/13/06 Roderick Cromar Gripping. I'll have to buy the book to discover what happened. 4 stars
3/04/06 HH Very accurate in the world it depicts, not an easy romcom in all regards. 5 stars
2/28/06 john bale Thought provoking though complex plot should concern us all. Clooney excells again. 4 stars
2/18/06 rich kramer the comments of other reviewers who felt it was not viewer friendly reflected my reactions! 2 stars
2/17/06 Soha Molina average 3 stars
2/10/06 elendil Rent it with a friend so you can hit pause and discuss to keep up 5 stars
2/05/06 BertRito I had no idea what was going on, yet somehow it was still OK. 3 stars
1/23/06 Donna A simple story made unnecessarily complicated. Dreary and depressing. Don't waste your time 2 stars
1/23/06 ajay I think I'm sorta intelligent, but I walked out confused and was relieved it was over. 2 stars
1/17/06 marini nielazaya like Collin Souter, I felt pretty stupid after watching it, but I think it was an important 4 stars
1/13/06 Sunny "Nice Try but NO." 2 stars
12/31/05 Faustus Smart, fast-paced and current with excellent writing, directing and acting. Fantastic film. 5 stars
12/30/05 Agent Sands Well-made, well-acted, but you've got to have a knowledge for the subject matter to follow. 4 stars
12/29/05 jcjs excellent, i even understood most of it the first time...fine work..a waring too 5 stars
12/23/05 Dee Sewell Boring not a thriller 2 stars
12/20/05 Pete Phelan rates in the all-time top 100 (even if you have to see it twice - I did) 5 stars
12/19/05 T.C. Fucking awesome 5 stars
12/18/05 ownerofdajoint A brilliant depiction of the malevolence created my mankind's super dependence on petroleum 5 stars
12/17/05 jeff have 2 b from the middle east to understand this movie. 5 stars
12/16/05 KingNeutron Interminable, brutal, stultifying, and Confusing. 2 stars
12/16/05 MV Where do the producers get the money for such an awful movie. Was the studio asleep? 1 stars
12/15/05 John Interesting, but no new info about our oil-based foreign policy. 4 stars
12/15/05 Ryan Great cast, good idea, but not well developed. 3 stars
12/15/05 millersxing Only thing "The Insider" or "Traffic" have on "Syriana" is more familiar subject matter. 5 stars
12/14/05 David That makes two of us. Couldn't agree more. 4 stars
12/14/05 dick runman confusing and sometimes boring 3 stars
12/11/05 James Wimmers I seldom ask for my money back 1 stars
12/11/05 Bentable ZzZzZ 2 stars
12/11/05 Mark Green 2 stars
12/11/05 varyouga putting politics aside, the story and character development was complete crap. boring 1 stars
12/10/05 Sergio Pretentous and confusing 2 stars
12/07/05 Christine Hill ~ Incredible! Thought Provoking. 5 stars
12/05/05 Carolyn Interesting to watch unfold but doesn't leave any impact on you 4 stars
11/30/05 Booyah Boy If you ever wondered why the US is so hated... 5 stars
11/27/05 Gary Savatsky Glib, anti american, superficial 2 stars
11/24/05 Todd Corruption? In the Oil business? I had no idea. 4 stars
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  23-Nov-2005 (R)
  DVD: 20-Jun-2006



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