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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Syriana

Saturday afternoon at the Essex Outlet Cinemas does not seem like a time I'd expect to see a theater full of adults willing to think about something as complex and at times frustrating as the political issues and business manipulations extended to control the world's oil supply. When I was at the theater yesterday to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe Dale (by now you should know I am referring to Dale Chapman, the delightfully dear manager of the Essex Outlet Cinemas) told me that people leaving Syriana were giving it rave reviews so I went into today's viewing expecting something much more "mainstream" than what I was about to experience.

I'm spoiled. I admit it. I'm used to my movies and my books being easy to digest with story-telling that is laid out in a simple linear pattern. Syriana tosses that presumption aside and from the beginning makes it clear to the viewer that he or she is going to have to pay attention and think during this next couple of hours just as you should be paying attention in real life to what is going on in the Middle East.

Competently written and directed by Stephan Gaghan, who won an Oscar in 2000 for Traffic, a similarily complex, multi-layered film about the drug trade, Syriana is in many ways about our ultimate drug ~ oil. It is a cerebral, thoughtful, and intelligent motion picture although certainly also a violent and serious indictment leveled at just about every level of the industry.

Telling five seemingly separate stories scattered across the globe, Syriana quickly jumps back and forth amongst them telling bits of each in such a fashion as to purposely confuse our allegiances. The most obvious center of the film, George Clooney's "Bob Barnes" for example, is first perceived as an arms dealer to terrorists, then is swiftly revealed to be a CIA covert operative who has infiltrated al-Queda, speaks Farsi, and has great internal connections within Hezbollah. He is also shown to be a killer then just as quickly as a victim of torture. He's a planner of assassination and also a would-be savior of the same target. It is hard to settle on how to feel about Bob's intentions, motives, and loyalties.

While Bob is doing what he is the film also follows the story of a young Pakastani oil worker, Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir) who is left unemployed at the Connex Oil Refinery when, after Connex loses a key contract, the Chinese take over. His despondence and lack of future makes him an easy target of Muslim radicals who recruit him into their terrorist organization. The stark, dry, dusty desert that offers him little hope for a future is a perfect backdrop to reflect back the emptiness of his life. Without the oil field job he has nothing and so has nothing to lose. It becomes much easier in seeing the stark realities of his life to understand how someone like Wasim can resolve to become a suicide bomber for the Muslims.

The plight of the poor Arab workers seems in stark contrast to the opulence displayed by the Saudi Emir (Nadim Sawalha) and his two sons, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) and his younger brother Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha). Their story concerns the Emir's decision to abdicate to one of the sons. Nasir is a reformer and visionary who desires to bring civil rights to his people and free up the oil in his country to whichever countries most need it while Meshal prefers to maintain the status quo, which means keeping a US military presence in the country and keeping a cap on where the oil is going.

Prince Nasir's life touches that of energy expert and financial consultant Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), who lives in Geneva with his lovely wife, Julie (Amanda Peet), and his two adorable little boys. Bryan's role as a "talking head" on tv news is a comfortable one and offers him some celebrity and a great life. When he is invited to attend one of Emir Hamed Al-Subaii's elaborate weekend parties in Spain he sees it as an opportunity to bring along the family for a holiday. Unfortunately, a tragic turn at the party nearly destroys Bryan's life and in the weeks that follow he is taken under the wing of Prince Nasir who either respects Woodman's expertise or feels compelled to help elevate Bryan in his career as a way of recompense for his loss. Meanwhile, the more involved in Prince Nasir's affairs that Bryan becomes the more detached and angry Julie becomes. She harbors great resentment at the Al-Subaii family and blames them for her family's personal tragedy and resents that her husband is willing to "sell out" to them.

In the United States, the powerful Oil Giants Connex Oil and the Killen Corporation are pushing through a quick merger in the hope of circumventing any Federal restrictions should the Justice Department's standard investigation find out reasons why either company should not be granted the permissions necessary to move forward. Both companies act as if the merger is a "done deal" and it is the actions of the "merged" Connex-Killen that dashed the hopes of those young Arabs and Pakastanis in the Middle East. In Washington DC, however, where people dine in expensive restaurants and live in mansions, the thoughts are about the "game" of oil, rather than the plight of lowly field workers. Attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) has been hired by Connex Oil CEO, Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), to find out any dirt on Connex's proposed merger with the small Killen Corporation before the Feds do. It seems that Killen has procured a deal with the vast oil fields of Kazakhstan while Connex has just lost a big Saudi contract to the Chinese. Whiting realizes that without access to the Saudi oil it is imperative that he secure the Kazakhstan rights at any cost and he is determined to make sure that Killen looks as "squeaky clean" to the Department of Justice as is necessary.

Basically these are the pieces of the puzzle set-up within the first hour of the film. So now things begin to weave together into a larger, clearer picture. All of these stories intersect one other as each of these men must make decisions to do the 'right' thing, or do the most 'advantageous' thing, in what one character calls "a fight to the death." Ultimately, though, the film has a dark and upsetting message: that it is in the West's business interests not to ignore the hardship and chaos in the Middle East, but to encourage it for the West's own better bottom-line.

Syriana will not be eveybody's cup of tea. It's not escapist fare like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but it is definitely thought-provoking and great for those seeking the type of movie that you can talk about for hours later with friends over coffee. Regardless of your political persuations (red state or blue), Syriana presents a wide-angle picture of global politics and intrigue not often seen in movies today.

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