12 December 2005 | evanston_dad
The Price We Pay
"Syriana" is a blistering, powerful film about the degree to which governments and corporate conglomerates place the ambition to control the world's oil supply above the well being of their citizens and employees. In this game, there are only bad guys, and what separates the villains from the protagonists is not a question of who's good and who's bad, but rather how bad each is willing to be.
So maybe "Syriana" doesn't tell us anything new. But that doesn't mean its points aren't worth making again and again. And though it is complicated, and I'm not going to pretend I followed every detail of its intricate plot, it's not *that* hard to follow. Stephen Gaghan is a good writer, and he provides a nice summary of the film's action in its final moments.
What emerges from this tangled puzzle is a web of corruption and self-interest, all fueled by the need for oil. In one plot thread, the men behind two soon-to-merge oil companies will stop at nothing to make the merger go through, since the new company will be one of the most powerful in the world. In another thread, the law firm representing the company proves that it's eager to cash in on the company's new economic success. Meanwhile, a power struggle between the two sons of an aging king in an unspecified Middle Eastern country (though Saudi Arabia is obviously suggested) has attracted the attention of the American government, operating through the CIA. America (read American business) has a vested interest in which of the king's sons succeeds him to the throne: It doesn't want the reform-minded eldest son, whose priorities will be building a country to benefit his own people; it wants instead the younger son, who will continue to relegate his country to a cosy spot in America's hip pocket and take its orders directly from the president of the USA. And in the film's most chilling plot strand, we see how the struggle for oil feeds the radical Islam movement in the Middle East, providing young men with a feeling of brotherhood and righteousness in the face of a region they feel has turned its back on them in favor of big business and Western corruption.
"Syriana" is tense, fast and furious. Following it can admittedly be somewhat exhausting, but if you pay very close attention to the first hour or so, as each story is introduced and the relationships between characters become clear, the second half of the movie is easier to digest.
I disagree with other comments here that the characters aren't developed or that the acting is unimpressive. On the contrary, I think all of the actors create extremely nuanced, compelling characters, a challenging task given the fact that none of them are allowed more than a minute or so at a time to feed us information about themselves. A movie like this could easily fall prey to filling itself with a bunch of stock villains, all cocked eyebrows and facial mannerisms rather than full-bodied characterizations, and the fact that it avoids this is a tribute to both Gaghan and the cast. And hats off to the editor on this movie, who had perhaps the most daunting task of the year.
2005 has been full of terse, important films, fresh in their immediacy. There have been a small number of sensational, tough, thought-provoking films instead of a larger batch of more mediocre ones, as has been the case recently. "Syriana" is one of the best movies of the year: it's angry, yet it's not hopeless. I hope Americans see this movie. At this time of year, when people are trampling each other in malls in order to be first in line for Christmas sales, I hope they remember that the vast wealth of America frequently comes at the sake of people all over the world who will never have a fraction of the comfort those in our country take for granted.