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Overall Rating

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 Rob Gonsalves

"Another position paper from Stephen Gaghan."
3 stars

If you take anything away from 'Syriana,' it might be this: Global dependence on oil is insanely complex, guided by shady deals and murky violence, and there's nothing you can do about it. Except, perhaps, to make a convoluted Oscar-chasing holiday movie about it.

Syriana was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who seems to have risen to grab the crown of Hollywood's Political Truth-Teller that Oliver Stone dropped long ago. The problem is that Gaghan, whose screenplay for the similarly conscientious and overpopulated Traffic won an Oscar, lacks Stone's skill at marshalling great chunks of data and dozens of characters and forging a rousing masterpiece (see JFK). Gaghan needed either an extra hour (ideally, an eight-episode HBO series) or fewer characters. Syriana probes a significant subject but treats its people as mere stick figures carrying exposition from place to place.

Who, for instance, is Bob Barnes? As played by a husky, bearded George Clooney, Bob is a loyal if exhausted CIA veteran, a flabby moth flying too close to the flame. Bob tells the truth about the Middle East, but the people in power have too much at stake in the oil fields. Bob is loosely based on the actual retired CIA agent Robert Baer, who, in his current status as film critic, has praised Syriana's "accuracy." Maybe so, but I'd hate to think Baer in real life is as colorless as Bob Barnes is written. Clooney, an old hand at casual masculine authority, does what he can to make Bob interesting, but the character is little more than a martyr.

A prominent Texas oil company loses its gas-drilling bid in the Middle East to the Chinese. Another company cozies up to Kazakhstan and wins drilling rights there. The two companies merge, and various people -- the powerful and powerless, their motives often far from clear -- buzz around the money. The talk (a lot of it) in Syriana is very obscure and knowing; Gaghan does catch the way powerful men must address each other across glass tables or over cigars. The movie acknowledges the ambition of younger players like Matt Damon's energy analyst (who turns a personal tragedy into a cash register), Jeffrey Wright's Washington attorney (who keeps having to go home to his sourly disapproving dad), and Alexander Siddig's shrewd Prince Nasir (who's willing to do business as long as military occupation isn't in the contract).

The saturnine Alexander Siddig, projecting mystery and intelligence, steals the film. But his character is as ill-defined as any other. We meet two laid-off Pakistani field workers (Mazhar Munir and Sonnell Dadral) who fall under the thrall of an Egyptian and become suicide bombers, and Gaghan obviously means them to be two of the many threads that make up the huge codependent web of oil mastery (violence in Gulf nations keeps the political hot potato rolling and is good for business). But their story could be a movie in itself, and the scrap of screen time they get isn't enough for Gaghan to develop a plausible shift from hard-luck guys to terrorists. Everyone else labors under the movie's weight, too -- Matt Damon's family-man character seems to capitalize on his tragic loss within minutes of the funeral, and poor Amanda Peet, as his wife, has nothing to do except look stricken. (She doesn't even get a great "I know you're an asshole but I'm staying with you because the lifestyle is worth it" speech like the one she skewered Ben Affleck with in Changing Lanes.)

Like Traffic, Syriana is aimed at the middle-aged, upper-middle-class white audience and structured as a position paper: This is why you should care about The War on Drugs or Our Dependence on Oil. Also like Traffic, the movie -- liberal as it tries to be -- draws on xenophobia. In Traffic, the sucker-punch message was that if drugs aren't decriminalized, your white daughter will sleep with black men. Syriana says that if we don't kick our oil addiction, our corporations and politicians will hop into bed (figuratively) with swarthy, corrupt Arabs. And both end up saying that the problem is too big for you to solve, anyway, so you might as well go home and hug your kids.

Gaghan wants credit for merely pointing out the problem. Duly noted. In that spirit -- and in the truth-telling spirit of Bob Barnes -- I must point out that Gaghan, however well-intentioned, is better suited to writing op-eds than to crafting movies with characters we can care about.

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originally posted: 01/10/07 16:13:21
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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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