SYRIANA is to movies about the Middle East muddle what Traffic was for films about the Drug War waste, which is to say superb. Written & directed by Traffic‘s same Stephen Gaghan, it won George Clooney a well-earned Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and pulled a nomination for its ambitious Screenplay. As with the other film, this 2005 thriller-for-grownups employs multiple storylines moving parallel and at a clip, in a matrix of locations, a complex schematic requiring an audience to pay more than the usual norm of attention so as to connect and keep up with the flow. Bluntly, if you’re smart, you shouldn’t have any trouble, especially if you’ve paid a modicum of heed to how the brutal geopolitics of energy supply have been working, for way too long, both supplying and throttling us at the same time. “Ruthless” doesn’t even begin…*
“What are they thinking? They’re thinking that it’s running out. It’s running out… and ninety percent of what’s left is in the Middle East. This is a fight to the death.”
The dense yet illuminating script follows four deftly-balanced subplots and an array well-delineated characters as their cross-purpose trajectories gain momentum, hurtling toward a meeting that will produce profit and loss of the sort that ensures no brake to a road leading off one hell of a cliff.
A US energy consortium wants a stake in the oil fields of a Middle Eastern country poised for new leadership. A regional expert/veteran CIA operative (Clooney) smells several types of rat in the maze. George wolfed on 30 pounds and grew a beard in order to better inhabit a different type than he was usually pegged to, and he really is excellent, but though he may have a tad more screen time than the other players, his role is just a part of the sterling ensemble.
Filmed in over 200 locations scattered among Morocco, Dubai, Egypt, Switzerland, Texas and Maryland, undergirded with a percolating score by the prodigious Alexandre Desplat, the you-are-there-lensing from the exacting Robert Elswit was razor-sharp edited by Tim Squyres (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Gosford Park, Life Of Pi). The investment factor came to $50,000,000, the dividend $93,975,000.
“Bob, what do you know about the torture methods used by the Chinese on the Falun Gong? Huh? Method number one. What’s your guess?… Water dungeon. Did you guess water dungeon? Number two method? Number two, twisting arm and putting face in feces. Not interested in two? Number three. Number three is called ‘pulling nails from fingers’. What do you think Bob? Number three sound good to you? The purpose is to get the monks or whatever to recant their beliefs. What if I had to get you to recant? That would be pretty difficult right? Because if you have no beliefs to recant then what? Then you’re fucked is what.”
In a coursing 128 minutes, Our Man George has a first-class cast in attendance: Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Alexander Siddig, Mark Strong, Peter Gerrety, Amanda Peet, Mazhar Munir, William Hurt, Tom McCarthy, Amr Waked, Akbar Kurtha, Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Foxworth, Jamey Sheridan, Max Minghella, David Clennon, Viola Davis. Each and every one is spot on.
*Apart from doing his own heavy-lifting research, Gaghan’s script was inspired and loosely adapted from a memoir written by Robert Baer, “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War Against Terrorism.” Baer’s other books include “Sleeping With The Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul For Saudi Crude.” Watch those fingernails!