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Syriana

Jane Kinninmont
17 March 2006

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Energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) and Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig)

As Hollywood's first major engagement with the "war on terror", Syriana is intriguing and provocative. But is it truly complex – or just overly complicated?

With this movie, writer/director Stephen Gaghan is trying to do for the "war on terror" what his previous screenplay Traffic did for the "war on drugs". He has drawn parallels between what he calls "a war on brain chemistry and a war on an emotion", and refers to oil as America's "addiction", which the country will go to extreme lengths to feed.

If you have seen Traffic, the fractured narrative, multiple plots and protagonists, and the final absence of any real "hero" will all be familiar. So, too, is the overarching sense of interdependence between all the people featured, of which the characters themselves are largely, tragically, unaware.

But while both films may come from a relatively left-wing, internationalist perspective, Syriana offers a thoroughly different worldview. Its plot is more complicated – witness the labyrinthine online discussions about what actually happens – but it ultimately paints a simpler picture.

More film reviews on openDemocracy:

Fahrenheit 9/11, John Berger (August 2004)

Everything is Illuminated, Rob Cawston
(December 2005)

Syriana, Rob Cawston (December 2005)

Good Night, and Good Luck, Neal Ascherson (February 2006)

Munich, Stephen Howe (February 2006)

The Constant Gardener, Anthony Barnett
(March 2006)

This is a deliberate shift of worldview: speaking at an early screening at BAFTA, Gaghan said: "Traffic was designed to tell you the world was big and incomprehensible, and to show the immense distance between the people consuming drugs and the suppliers overseas. But this is now a very small world, its fabric woven very tight."

Amidst several interrelated conspiracies involving gun-running, corrupt business deals, a dodgy merger, a crooked legal firm, a royal succession dispute in a fictional Gulf emirate, and a school for suicide bombers, one thing is clear: the CIA are the bad guys.

The lawyers and the representatives of US Big Oil are also nasty men (and they are all men). Prince Nasir, the young crown prince of the mythical Gulf emirate, is Good with a capital G: squeaky clean, keen to modernise his country, and respectful to his wife. But since he prefers Chinese oil companies to American ones, the CIA plans to assassinate him.

In this film, the main driving force behind all the disparate plots is American greed. There's also a militant attack on an American target. Meanwhile, the nice-guy autocrat Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) has no secret police, pays no thuggish soldiers and jails no democracy activists. The plot may feel very complex, but it has nothing on the complexity of the real world.

And perhaps this is an unfair standard to hold a Hollywood movie to. This film is particularly interesting because it is "mainstream". It has Matt Damon and George Clooney (who won an Oscar for his role) offering a counter-narrative to the received wisdom about the "war on terror" in the US. It is a major motion picture that actually expects its audience to think very hard. The Gulf prince may be implausibly clean, but Hollywood needs few things less than another Arab villain. This Good Prince character is all the more interesting for being played by an actor of Arabic descent: Siddig is British-Sudanese.

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Prince Nasir - the "reform minded" Gulf prince. Will he be the next emir?

Of course, all this looks less radical from elsewhere: Iranian writer Amir Taheri argues that the type of conspiracy-theorising offered by Syriana is already received wisdom in the Arab media, and that the knee-jerk tendency to blame the US for everything denies Arabs any meaningful role as agents, for good or bad.

For a western film-viewer, by contrast, this film – along with some other recent productions such as Good Night and Good Luck and the Constant Gardener – is a break from the patriotic norms of big-screen thrillers.

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The writer and director, Stephen Gaghan

Gaghan did months of research in the region with former CIA agent Bob Baer, whose book See No Evil inspired the film. As a result, he has enough stories to make several other films. Speaking in person at an early BAFTA screening, he rattled off anecdotes at hyperspeed with barely a pause for breath, and kept talking to the audience well after his interviewer had begged for permission to leave.

So it's not surprising that this movie bursts with subplots (notably, every major character has a troubled relationship with a father or a son). It overflows with local detail, from the opening party in Tehran – where local kids reject Barnes' illicit whisky in favour of MDMA powder – to Clooney's blindfolded car-hopping journey with Hizbollah through the streets of downtown Beirut. All this makes the movie incredibly exciting, if all the more confusing.

Syriana is also fascinating because it was filmed in the region; the desert and the intense silvery sunlight of the Gulf are real. As the first major western production permitted to film in Dubai, it did run in to some difficulties. Gaghan recounts that he had been given permission to film in (then crown prince, now emir) Sheikh Mohammed's palaces, but the sheikh changed his mind when he heard rumours that the film could be perceived by some as anti-Saudi. According to Gaghan, the leader of another emirate then extended them an invitation to use any of his palaces, having heard that the film could by perceived by some as anti-American.

Certainly, the movie has subsequently been accused of both forms of bias; I've read Arab journalists complain it's a conspiracy to undermine the oil industry, while some US right-wingers have predictably slammed it as part of the US's alleged liberal media conspiracy.

To be fair, it is pretty damning to all concerned, regardless of their nationality. The Gulf prince is an exception to the general rule: there are no real good guys. Disillusioned spy Bob Barnes (George Clooney) can't be accused of being a typical hero, either in his actions (screwing up a clandestine arms deal, bungling an assassination attempt) or his appearance (heavyset, bearded and thoroughly depressed). The two younger US leads, Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) and Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) start off as rising stars in a cloudless sky, but go on to make questionable decisions and undermine personal loyalties en route to successes that neither will ever really enjoy.

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The "fat George Clooney" as Bob Barnes, veteran CIA operative

And in perhaps the most interesting plotline, a highly sympathetic young Pakistani character known only as Wasim (excellently played by young British-Kashmiri actor Mazhar Munir) becomes a suicide bomber. A young immigrant worker at a big oil corporation, fired along with his father without explanation, finds himself poor and humiliated, and becomes easy fodder for a charismatic blue-eyed Egyptian recruiter.

This is a particularly brave piece of storytelling for a Hollywood movie. After all, only last year, the New York Times reported that two writers were making a name for themselves in television gossip circles with a sitcom concept too controversial for any network to touch: a klutzy cell of bungling terrorists who make hilarious errors as they attempt to destroy the US. If it is not yet acceptable to laugh at such characters, how much more difficult must it be to show them as innocents?

(If you haven't seen the film, you may want to skip this paragraph!) Sadly, I felt the movie pulled its punches when it came to Wasim's final act of violence. Riding over a beautiful sea to his oil-industry target, he launches himself at it aboard a seriously heavy-duty missile – originally, of course, made by an American firm. Then we see nothing but white light. This absence of victims, or of any aftermath at all, seems oddly sanitised compared to early scenes where Barnes is tortured in unwatchable ways involving his fingernails.

So despite offering a range of perspectives on the multiple stories, the makers of Syriana do not offer as complex a picture as it may initially seem.

But perhaps major political films need to be didactic to get their point across. The far less subtle Fahrenheit 9-11 had its biases, its glaring omissions, its clearly partisan approach. But at the end of the day, massive audiences chose to see that film rather than the many more balanced, less discussed documentaries that the mainstream ignores every year.

Syriana is a far more nuanced and intelligent film. It has succeeded in raising some vital issues; you might disagree, perhaps furiously, but if you come out of the cinema arguing about it, Syriana has done its job well.

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Wasim Ahmed Khan (Mazhar Munir) a young migrant worker from Pakistan who tries to find work in the oil fields of Prince Nasir's country.

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