Reviewed by Deepa Kandaswamy*, Mar. 22, 2006
Starring: George Clooney, Christopher Plummer,
Chris Cooper, Alexander Siddig, Mazhar Munir,
Jeffrey Wright, and Matt Damon
Director: Stephen Gaghan
As mist clears in the first scene, the visual of a large number of poor Indian, Pakistani, and Arab laborers queuing up to work in paltry conditions punches you in the gut. When the TATA bus (TATA is an Indian corporation) picks them up and then you hear the people speaking in Hindi, for a second you forget this is a Hollywood movie. At first you might think this it was an Indian movie and that there is going to be a song and dance sequence any minute. However, with an unkempt, baggy, fat, and thoroughly unattractive George Clooney — who truly deserved the Oscar for his performance — making his appearance, one is reminded that this is a Hollywood production.
From the streets of Tehran to oil company board rooms in Texas, from Georgetown law firms to the secret world of the Hezbollah in Beirut, from the CIA headquarters in Virginia to the air-conditioned mansions of the royalty in the Middle East, director Stephen Gaghan has managed to tell the story of the business of oil and the global politics that surround it. However, it wasn’t without assistance, as the movie is based on the book by Robert Baer, See No Evil:The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.
Syriana therefore carries with it a level of authenticity, which is its primary strength, so much so, that it is almost believable. If it hadn’t been for the recognizable Hollywood faces like George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Christopher Plummer, it could have easily passed off as a hidden camera exposé on the global politics of oil.
A Story From Every Angle
The movie tells the story through the viewpoints of different players in the great game of global oil. The owner of one of the US oil corporations, played by Chris Cooper, seems almost believable and reminds you of George W. Bush when he angrily asked, "What does an emir mean anyway?" though he is deeply involved in the Middle East oil business.
Ruthless, corrupt, and ignorant, the owner doesn’t flinch when he is buying off the US government or the judiciary, while at the same time, he also considers himself to be a true family man, community leader, and a patriot by building schools and hospitals in his state. The emotional disconnection of the corporate leader is brought out well by Cooper’s brilliant performance.
We see the perspective of Bennet Holliday (played by Jeffrey Wright), whose boss, Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), runs a highly "respectable" law firm that bends the rules of the law to suit the oil corporations. Bennet is an African American, and his disgruntled and disappointed father is unable to accept what Bennet has become — a legal beaver who bends laws and betrays his coworkers to help the oil corporations defy the very American legal system that he swore to uphold when he became an attorney.
There is a power struggle between the two sons of the emir: the visionary elder son and heir, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), who envisions a new deal for his people but who doesn’t think much of his brother and second son of the emir, Prince Mesmal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha), who is power hungry, corrupt, cruel, but strategically more competent. However, both men are far removed from the people they wish to rule over. Through the character of Mussawi, the viewer is made to realize that Arab terrorists and their outfits are not adopted for some sacred cause, but rather because they believe in the money and power they can get from it.
The character of Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an energy analyst running a small consultancy firm in Geneva, Switzerland, forces us to see how materialistic and money-minded energy executives can be. When he loses his son in a pool party accident hosted by the emir, he uses the chance to become the chief economic advisor to Prince Nasir as he sincerely believes that through Nasir, he can make a difference.
Central to the movie is Robert Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA operator and assassin from the Cold War times who gets worried when one of the missiles he is directed to sell to the Iranians is missing. He is unable to comprehend the absolute lack of interest that the US administration or the CIA shows in getting the missing missile back.
With his family life in shambles, thanks to the nature of his job, Barnes painfully soon finds out that he is expendable, despite his impeccable record. He then begins to question whom he is really working for — the American people or American corporations. Disillusioned but determined, while trying to track down the missile, he stumbles upon an assassination plot by the CIA to get rid of Prince Nasir — the rightful heir to the emir who is about to take over the governance of a Middle Eastern country — and install a willing puppet, Prince Mesmal, the cruel, corrupt, and despotic second son. Will Robert Barnes succeed in stopping the assassination, or will the CIA prevent him?
Finally, we see the lowly immigrant oil rig worker, Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir) along with his father, Saleem Ahmed Khan (Shahid Ahmed), far away from his motherland, who, despite horrid working conditions is there to make a living but gets laid off and faces imminent deportation because of the merger of two US oil companies.
Neither their employers nor the emir could care less about the plight of oil rig workers. While the merger of the two companies makes the owners richer than several nations combined, and the emir rules his country from air-conditioned homes and hi-tech gadgets, Wasim and his father lose their jobs — the irony is palpable.
Three Thumbs Up
As one watches the movie, three things will hit anyone who lives in a former European colony. The first thing is imperialism. We hear about it and read about it, yet still many refuse to accept it. This movie drives the idea home by completely shattering the illusion in which most of us live — that somehow colonization and imperialism are dead in today’s world. Most of the Europeans did it — the British, the French, the Dutch, and to a certain extent the Italians and Germans.
The colonialists went into countries as traders and then used their connections with their own governments, military forces, and intelligence services to either influence policy in these countries or to completely dictate policies by installing puppet governments in those countries with the strings pulled in London or Paris or some other European capital.
During the Cold War, there were two players. Now it appears there are two again — America and China — as the film indicates, apart from the fact that America is a former colony of Great Britain, it has learned its lessons well and has been replicating the colonialist model in the Middle East. This time though, it is not the British East India Company and Scotland Yard behind the scenes, but rather is it the military–industrial complex of the US — that is the American oil corporations, the American arms industry, and the CIA — who do the dirty work for America. The only things that have changed are the location and the fact that technology is not clumsy anymore, but now produces hi-tech assassinations.
The second thing is the reality of the "War on Terror." This eye-opening film proves that such a thing doesn’t exist and that the "War on Terror" is actually a "War of Interests." You are made to re
alize that despite the September 11 bombings, the reason why the US and its "coalition of the willing" chose to invade Iraq and are now plotting to invade Iran rather than capture Usama bin Laden, is because they choose to do so and not because they cannot.
There is some clever wordplay in the movie with the names of the two US Oil Corporations called Connex and Killen which makes you smile as the names suggest "Con X" and "Killing." Moreover, when the corporations merge and become Killen-Connex, the director seems to suggest that all these huge American oil corporations do is kill and con. This was ripe with satire because we see them killing and conning as the events progress. Full points to Stephen Gaghan on this one.
The third fact is that this Hollywood movie, while it does talk about the Middle East, never even refers to — let alone justify — issues in the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. This is refreshing, as it seems the Americans have finally come to understand that not all problems of the Middle East are about the Palestinian question, as is usually portrayed.
Two Thumbs Down
The film is not without faults. One fault is the subtle suggestion that somehow immigrant laborers from South Asia, especially Pakistan, upon loss of their jobs are brainwashed and turned into suicide bombers for the Arabs. This doesn’t hold, especially after the story shows Wasim and his father dreaming to bring Wasim’s mother to this Middle Eastern country.
It is commonly known that laborers from South Asia, especially oil rig workers, are not only treated shabbily but also cannot buy a piece of land or bring their families to live. While this may cut ice with an American and European audience, it is highly irritating and objectionable to stereotype Pakistani workers as suicide bombers who, given the choice of deportation or death, choose death in a foreign land to fight for someone else’s cause. Why not show a poor Arab instead? Demonizing South Asians is not a good idea.
The other fault is the lack of fleshing out the Chinese connection in the shady oil deals in West Asia. The role of the Chinese was underplayed. At the same time one wonders how the visionary Prince Nasir decides to do business with the Chinese government, which is known for being ruthless with its citizens, despite its talk of democracy and freedom.
On the Whole
However, all details considered, Stephen Gaghan has managed to tell the story well. Despite its shortcomings, this is not a typical feel-good Hollywood movie. Nor is it about Islam-bashing, as seen in Not without My Daughter. The movie doesn’t pander to any side and remains pragmatic about the secret world of oil, the corruption and the ruthlessness of the power players, and the pawns that are controlled in the great oil game.
Viewing this movie will make you wonder about your own consumer role that makes all these people’s lives possible. It certainly made me want to go out and buy an electric car. I am looking into it and hope to buy one shortly.
Syriana is not a complex film, nor is it a political thriller as labeled — unless corporate, mafia-like assassinations can be termed as such — but rather it is an intriguing, timely, effective, powerful, and addictive film that makes you want to see it more than once.
*Deepa Kandaswamy is an award-winning writer, political analyst, and engineer based in India. Her articles have been published in six continents and some of her writing credits include ABC News, Ms., Truth Out, Data Quest, and Middle East Policy. She is the founder–moderator of the International Gender Lobby, which is a global networking platform for individuals, organizations, and activists who are interested in working for human rights, peace, and development worldwide.