Review of "Syriana" --- a case on point
By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
Daniel Yergin's 1992 best-seller The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power contains a photograph of a triumphant-looking man in a well-tailored, western-style suit, hoisted by his admirers above a large, elated crowd. The caption reads, "Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized British Petroleum in 1951, setting off the first postwar oil crisis and unleashing political forces that he could not control." By the time the crisis played itself out, Yergin tells us, the Shah of Iran paid BP's nationalized subsidiary "about $90 million up front for the 60 percent rights that the company was said to be giving up," while "Mossadegh was put on trial by the reinstated Shah -- and spent three years in prison."
In Syriana, energy-analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) likens the Arab royal, who hires Woodman's consulting firm, to Mossadegh, a sure signal from Director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) that his Prince Nasir is in for big trouble. Nasir, heir-apparent to his ailing emir-father, has cut a deal with the Chinese to buy the emirate's oil, acing out American energy-giant Connex. From the moment he signs with the Peoples Republic, Nasir (Alexander Siddig) is a marked man.
The CIA dispatches veteran operative Bob Barnes (George Clooney, whose Section Eight production company co-produced the film) to dispose of Nasir, so that Connex can climb back into the saddle. Clooney's character is very loosely based on the real-life CIA agent and author Bob Baer, who published his memoir See No Evil in 2002. Syriana is likewise (very) loosely-based on Baer's varied experiences -- particularly leading an alleged attempt on the life of Saddam Hussein -- during a lengthy career that carried him all over the Middle East.
If Director Gaghan's quick-cut, documentary-like style of film-making turned you out of Traffic (2000), you may have the same trouble keeping your head in the fast-paced, globe-hopping Syriana story. But, just as "nothing concentrates the mind better than knowing that one will be hanged in the morning," nothing could bring the viewer's attention back into focus better than the film's mid-stream torture scene. Barnes travels to Beirut, where he hires an assassin named Mussawi to kill Prince Nasir when he visits the city. "Drug him, put him in a car, and drive a truck into him at 50 miles an hour," Barnes casually instructs his killer. When the "wet-work" specialist turns on Barnes and takes him captive, you get a graphic depiction of what it might be like to have your fingernails removed, one at a time. If this doesn't pull you back into the film, nothing will.
From then on, this 126-minute whirligig of a movie spins interconnected plots around and through one another. Washington lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is charged by his firm's puppeteer managing-partner (Christopher Plummer) with ferreting out any skeletons in client Connex's closet that might trip up its merger with a smaller firm holding some prime Mid-East drilling rights. The Justice Department wants the wedding consummated in the national interest, but demands the blood of one or two sacrificial lambs -- be they oil company execs or senior partners from Holiday's own firm -- to satiate the criminal justice system. Everybody knows the smaller Killen Corp could never have gotten its oil concessions without greasing a few Arab palms in violation of U.S. law. The deal must be cleansed by a (metaphorically-speaking) blood sacrifice; somebody has to do some hard time.
This political passion-play inevitably and inexorably converges with a second, very real blood sacrifice, that of Prince Nasir (no metaphors in the Middle East, it seems). Is the meeting of Nasir's convoy with a herd of Bedoin goats and sheep on the road where the prince is targeted for assassination symbolic or coincidental?
Befitting the product of a master film-maker, working with a first-rate cast, Syriana comes to its climax with no simple twists of fate. Four distinct story lines -- the Connex/Killen merger; the relentless CIA effort to erase the reform-bent Nasir from America's Middle Eastern equation; Agent Bob Barnes's eleventh-hour effort at redemption; and, the slender compelling thread of the transformation of two Arab oilfield workers into suicide bombers -- converge to make Syriana a thought-provoking thriller of a film.