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Syriana (DVD) (WS)
Syriana: noun a geographical term referring to those Middle East hot spots that have proven volatile with regard to the security of the United States; a place in the Middle East where trouble is always breaking out. Based on the best-selling book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism by Robert Baer, this timely political thriller takes a penetrating look at the efforts of the U.S. intelligence-gathering community in the Middle East, weaving together several storylines ranging from American foreign policy and the CIA's role in it to the oil industry and terrorism. Welcome to Syriana.]]>
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"The movie begins with one of the Gulf states signing a deal to supply its oil to China. This comes as a strategic defeat for Connex, a Texas-based oil company. At the same time, an obscure oil company named Killen signs a deal to drill for oil in Kazakhstan. Connex announces a merger with Killen, to get its hands on the oil, but the merger inspires a Justice Department investigation, and -- Let's stop right there. The movie's plot is so complex we're not really supposed to follow it, we're supposed to be surrounded by it. Since none of the characters understand the whole picture, why should we?"
I should have read a few reviews before watching. Sitting down for a mindlessly entertaining action thriller and winding up in a murky, cerebral geopolitical work of art is disorienting. This film demands that the viewer pay attention, but even then, the four interwoven but separate storylines never resolve into a unified whole. I feel that I have seen something important, and once my head stops spinning I'll watch it again to try and figure out what.
The trick to understanding this movie before it's over is to remember the names. Once you get to the point when you know who's who, everything else unfolds from there.
So, what's going on?
Matt Damon is a financial advisor to Prince Nassir. Prince Nassir's family just approved a deal for the chinese to come in and set up shop as oil drillers, as the chinese offered the highest bid.
However, the US wants to cut the chinese out of the picture so that the newly merged connex and the smaller oil company can do their thing in place of the chinese.
So, now we're at that scene when the old guy is talking to Prince Nassir's younger brother on the yacht. What you have to infer is that the "wish" that Nassir's younger brother wants the "cat's paw" to grant is to have his older brother, Prince Nassir, assassinated. In return for the favor, the US will get the oil contract instead of the chinese.
That's when the CIA have George Clooney arrange for Prince Nassir to be assassinated. However, you know that doesn't work out. You might recall the torture scene. After Clooney narrowly escapes certain death, the torturer threatens to reveal the CIA's assassination attempt to the media.
Next we see Clooney threatening the old man in the cafe. A trusted former co-worker had informed Clooney that the old man is setting him up to be the fall guy for any negative backlash resulting from the exposure of the failed assassination attempt.
Once Clooney is able to get his passports back, he attempts to intercept Prince Nassir on the desert freeway and warn him of the danger to his life. In the freeway scene, Nassir has re-established relations with the Chinese; and with the help of 9 out of 11 of the country's generals, he is attempting to de-throne his conniving, ambitious younger brother.
So, everything else is pretty much straightforward.
Aging can be a problem with some geopolitical films; this one is holding up as still reasonably contemporary eight years later. It's not for casual viewing though as there are four related major sub-plots that are advanced simultaneously from very nearly the beginning to the end. The manner in which the film switches between them, and their intellectual depth beyond the typical intelligence agent action genre, requires paying attention to prevent getting lost.
Syriana does not tie everything up neatly at the end and in retrospect this is appropriate. It's not to set the stage for a sequel. There is sufficient finality to end the story but maintaining credibility demands it be presented as a time slice on the continuum of fossil fuel energy resources, enormous corporations, and powerful governments. The manner in which Syriana does this should provoke some relevant questions and thinking about the issues afterward.
I found it a film well worth seeing, even eight years after its theatrical release, as it's still provocatively relevant. Strongly recommend doing so when attention to the film won't be distracted.