Syriana (Review/Discussion)

Dir. Stephen Gaghan
Starring; Matt Damon, George Clooney, etc.
126 minutes

Should You See the Film?
I would mildy recommend the film. The story and characters weren’t really interesting and compelling. Perhaps, I felt that way because I had a hard time following the various plot lines. I also didn’t feel the film was very thrilling, but it wasn’t boring either. If you’re looking purely for straight entertainment, don’t see the film. The politics are the more interesting parts of the film, and the film is more in line with Oliver Stone movies or All the President’s Men, but not half as entertaining as those films.

The film follows several characters: a CIA agent, a commodities trader, a Middle-East prince, Middle-Eastern laborers, a laywer for a US oil company and a few others. Through these characters and their stories, the audience gets a picture of the interconnections between big oil, foreign and domestic policiy in the US, terrorism, among other things.

The film is not boring, and does a satisfactory job of covering the complex issues. I give the film a “6” just for tackling these important issues, and not botching it up.

Personal Comments
This is the type of film that you applaud the filmmakers for trying to make, while recognizing they were not very successful. The issues covered in the film are important and they are complex. Making a film with traditional characters and narratives (emphasis on plural) is a good way to inform the public and hopefully inspire more public debate about these issues.

However, this is a movie that requires the time to sort out the various plot lines and characters before one can make a fair assessment of the film. I haven’t done that yet, and perhaps after (and if) I do, I may think more highly of the film. A part of me doesn’t think so because one of the problems I had with the film is that I didn’t connect really well with any of the characters. The film wasn’t just confusing in terms of plot, but also the internal machinations of the characters: their emotions, motivations, and thoughts. The characters and their stories weren’t very interesting either, yet that is the means by which the filmmakers will hook viewers into the story of big oil and politics, foreign and domestic.

In some ways the characters are not that critical to the focus of the film–namely, the complex relationship between US foreign policy, Middle-East politics and economics. Because of this, during the film I thought that a documentary might have been a more appropriate vehicle for this film. The filmmakers could have tried to make a fake documentary in the style of PBS’ Frontline, instead of using traditional narratives and characters.

The other problem I had with the film was that I didn’t really feel like there were any big revelations or insights. Now, this may change if I take the time to analyze the film. Still, this is more of a subjective thing, and if I thought the film was really well-made, I would give the film a higher rating.

I think George Clooney talked about how he hoped people would gather around the water cooler and talk about the film, what they agreed with and disagreed with. Does the film succeed in this? I think the film is too confusing and requires time to unravel and make sense of the film before one knows what to agree and disagree with. It’s a hard film to talk about.

Here are some points the film made that I agree with:

  1. The US government would and does “oppose” Middle-East leaders that are pro-democratic and pro-human rights if those leaders do not favor policies that will cater to US economic interests. In the film, the US went so far as to kill a pro-democratic prince because he favored using the market(!) for exporting and importing rather than striking a deal with the US to purchase products for them.
  2. The US government will resort to create the illusion that justice is being served, when it really isn’t. In the film, the justice department indicts Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) just to give the appearance that justice is being served, while allowing for the deal to go through for the oil company (Chris Cooper’s) to get the deal in Kurgistan(sp?) or somewhere in that region.
  3. The US government will use it’s military and intelligence capabilities to protect its economic interests even at the expense of ideals it hold dear. (See #1.)
  4. Placing economic interests above democratic ideals contributes indirectly to terrorism.

This leads me to ask a tough question:

Are we as US citizens willing to sacrifice some of our lifestyle (which depends on our economy) in order to reduce the threat of terrorism? For example, in the film, if the US government supported the pro-democratic prince, we may have lost jobs in certain states. In exchange, the prince may have been able to enact more democratic reforms that would decrease the pool of terrorists.

However, we may not always have to sacrifice our lifestyle. If we develop alternative sources of energy, we could become less dependent on oil. (Would the oil companies allow this?) Should we consider drilling in Alaska, especially if that would make us less dependent on oil?

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