Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 04/03/06 00:52:45

"All The Oily Men"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Incomprehensible. Confusing. Gimmicky. Presumptuous. Pseudo-intellectual. A lot of names have been hurled towards 'Syriana'- Stephen Gaghan’s tirade on global politics that compasses the circumference of oil. Boring even! Wholly undeserving of such snide remarks, that owes greatly to the intellectual ineptitude of the popcorn-munching multiplex variety; this intelligent diatribe is at least ballsy, if nothing. Not in recent memory has an American Studio green-lighted product been this unflinching or unafraid in its exposition.

Much like Gaghan’s previous writing effort Traffic, Syriana is an intricately woven piece that jumps narratives and timelines in the larger attempt to establish plot than develop characters. The approach fits like a glove, considering that both Traffic and Syriana are descriptive essays morphed into a film-script rather than character-driven stories converted into interesting running-time. To say then that Syriana is Traffic with oil is not only a foolish simplification but a grave misreading of the film’s merits.

To mention the various characters and delineate their storylines will not only be an arduous task but ultimately an unfulfilling one. Here’s a rough outline. Bob Barnes(George Clooney) is a field operative for the CIA specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. Bob is not suited for deskwork though, and when his superiors learn of this handicap in a somewhat embarrassing confrontation with the Washington bureaucrats, Bob is immediately assigned to fieldwork again, ignoring even his crucial disclosure of a missing missile that he finds about in his previous assignment to Kazakhstan. This time, his job is to kidnap and assassinate Prince Nasir Al-Subaai(Alexander Siddig), successor to the King of an unnamed Emirate. Prince Nasir has irked the comfort of Washington by giving natural-gas drilling rights to a Chinese company, hitherto assigned to the American oil-giant Connex. Connex in a bid to overcome this loss, plans a merger with the oil-minnow Kinnel who’ve just earned rights to drill oil in the fields of Kazakhstan. The head of Kinnel, Jimmy Pope(Chris Cooper) hires the law firm run by top-draw Dean Whiting(Christopher Plummer) to clear any hassles that might come in the way of this substantial yet shady merger that would make Connex-Kinnel the 5th largest oil-company in the world! Dean assigns his lawyer Bennett Holiday(Jeffrey Wright) to this landmine of a case, that will reap fat profits if traversed with skill and care. Then there’s also Bryan Woodman(Matt Damon), an energy analyst who becomes Prince Nasir’s policy advisor following a tragic incident that affects the Woodman family on a devastating level. Woodman believes that Prince Nasir’s liberal and flexible outlook would ensure the economic growth of his Emirate. And finally, there is the father-son duo of Saleem(Shahid Ahmed) and Wasim(Mazhar Munir)- expatriate Pakistanis who lose their jobs at the Connex refinery when a Chinese company outbids Connex. Wasim is subsequently lured by a seductive Muslim fanatic into joining a radical organization committed to jihad.

All this disclosure is merely scratching the surface. Syriana is as complex a film possible; and yes it will help if one’s aware of the global political goings-on. Why do you think the American President thought it so imperative to visit India at a time when India was inclining towards the Iran pipeline? Why was Dubya so bent upon getting the Nuclear Pact between India and the US signed? Well, if you don’t know by now…the name of the game is oil. It is oil that’s keeping America interested in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, it is oil that runs the global economy, it is oil that determines the powers-to-be at Washington and it is oil that determines who runs the world. As far as America is concerned, oil is Iraq’s weapon of mass destruction! And that of every other Gulf nation! In a diabolical twist, the Muslim fundamentalists and hardliners use this forcibly acquired hegemony of the US in global politics as their rhetoric to brainwash young and influential minds in a holy war against the West. Ironically, most of these terrorist groups are financed by the oil money that the US helps generate by funding certain militia in their unquenchable thirst of acquiring more oil! Syriana’s final montage of assorted scenes culminates in a chilling fashion of the trend that exists and will most likely follow, unless America mends its ways.

Syriana- the title sounds like a fable. Searching the net yields the following description- "Syriana is a very real term used by Washington think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East." Stephen Gaghan however thinks that Syriana is “a great word that could stand for man's perpetual hope of remaking any geographic region to suit his own needs." All three interpretations merge naturally. Like a fable- the Washington has perenially tried to reshape the Middle East, none more than the unrelenting efforts of Senior and Junior Bush. Almost as a subtle hint, the film is replete with fathers and sons, each paying for the sins of the other and also benefitting from them. Damon’s Bryan doesn’t allow a personal loss to stop him from doing what is practically the sane thing to do, even if he comes across as an opportunist at the end of it. Wright’s Bennett shares a love-hate relationship with his alcoholic father who just as easily dismisses Bennett’s advocacy of the devil while clinging on to him like a leach. Prince Nasir’s fate is ultimately determined by the short-sightedness of his father. There are a few other such examples, the most apparent being the Pakistani father-son.

Syriana boasts of performances that may not be jaw-dropping, but do complete justice to each character. George Clooney makes Bob Barnes someone we care for and sympathize with. Matt Damon and Alexander Siddig add layers to their roles. Jeffrey Wright is easily the stand-out with his bland single-note act that peels away to show us another facet to his personality that is equally bland if not more. There’s a workmanlike quality to his approach and it only enhances his everyman character that isn’t averse to making moral compromises. Besides these lead players, everyone packs a punch- be it Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Amanda Peet and Tim Blake Nelson(who gets to do a wonderful monologue on corruption).

'Syriana' is a wake-up call from America. Unfortunately, those that matter seem to believe the fallacious notion that Bennett Holiday proclaims- “Our biggest clients are us!”

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