Syriana (2005) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Syriana (2005)

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Danny LIKEIt's probably not a controversial statement when, discussing the United States' foreign policy, that it's two major goals are at odds with each other. The nation's need to remain solvent and dominate global politics requires keen use of businesses and intelligence, all focused on maintaining America's energy supply. On the other hand, the United States was founded on the principals of life, liberty, democratic systems, equality, and a whole bunch of nice sounding things that it espouses as its core principals any time someone asks.

Not surprisingly, in the political arena, the former principles often win out over the latter.

That's one of the lessons that is emphasized throughout Syriana, but to boil down this complex film into a common observation of American foreign policy is doing it a disservice. Moments evoke legal thrillers, family dramas, cliched spy movies, and a broad swath of cinema up to and including Lawrence of Arabia.

Each piece of the puzzle isn't a perfect fit, but that almost serves to make the movie feel more real.

But let me step back a bit. Syriana is a multi-character piece-- some storylines intersect, some don't. The background is the oil company Connex which is in the process of merging with a smaller company named Killen, and together they will be one of America's largest energy providers. From this backdrop, we follow:

1) The young emigre to the Persian Gulf who loses his job because of the merger and turns radical,

2) The displaced Sheik's son who is an enemy for wanting to take control of his country's oil and using it to improve living conditions,

3) The CIA agent whose shady business seems to have more to do with securing business connections than national security,

4) The lawyer who has to decipher the shady business connections emerging from the merger.

There's a few other characters in there that intersect and weave between the stories, but from these four you can decipher a lot of what the film is trying to say about American policy on the Middle East. 1) Our hamfistedness creates radicalism by not creating appropriate infrastructure, 2) we sabotage appropriate infrastructure because creating people who aren't radicals would create people who realize that we're fucking them over in oil rights, and 3) and 4) we are not above or below any means in doing this, crafting our own justice system to mete out against those we deem in the way or lightly punish those on our side.

Two of the plots could seemingly be excised from the movie to make a tighter thriller, but you'd lose a great deal of texture in the meantime.

There are other little details that create more vivid pictures. One shot I'm a fan of is a scene where the CIA agent (played by George Clooney, again looking suspiciously like my father) is eating at a Mexican restaurant with his disenchanted son. The scene lingers for a half moment on the workers in the cramped kitchen putting the beans and rice on the plate; it's short enough to blend in, but long enough to make its point: the Mexicans here are out of sight for the privileged American customers, giving their lifeblood for the chance to make a few dollars.

The film is a graceful version of those Alejandro González Iñárritu movies that get tossed at the screen every awards season, but while those glacially paced melodramas make basic points about the human condition, Syriana feels more immediate by its nature. With a distinguished cast of actors like Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Nelson, Matt Damon, Alexander Siddig, and Jeffrey Wright and a solid narrative thoroughfare that guides several plots from inception to conclusion, it's  a surprisingly compact and tense film.

The film offers no answers (possibly because there are none) and ends with the inevitable. America cannot make hard decisions, and it definitely isn't just America who pays for that.

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Posted by Danny

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