Most movies tell us everything and then they tell it to us again, just to make sure. Some movies, like this one, tell us too little, making us work at it, making us lean forward in our seats, fill in the blanks ourselves and then talk to each other about it on the way home. Like Traffic, with the same writer and director, this is a multi-layered and complex examination of a multi-layered and complex global problem.
If you want a movie that answers all your questions, try “Revenge of the Sith.” If you want a movie that questions all your answers, try this one.
One question it never answers is the meaning of the title. Syriana, according to the film’s website, is a fictional name used by Washington think-tanks to envision a hypothetical (and presumably optimal) reshaping of the Middle East.
The film is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle without a picture of the completed version to guide you and some of the crucial pieces missing. There are little glimpses of many different stories and variations on the theme of oil and of its exploitation and costs — political, commercial, environmental, and international security.
One central character is a CIA operative named Robert Barnes (George Clooney), wise but tired and his bureacratic bosses back in Langley, Virgnia, trying to maintain their viability and deniability. There is an American financial analyst named Bryan (Matt Damon), who lives in Geneva with his wife and two sons, a family so idyllically loving that you know they are in for tragedy. There are two Arab princes competing with each other to be selected by their father to succeed him as monarch, a contest vitally important to the corporate interests, especially two American oil companies trying to get government approval for a merger. It is also of vital importance to national security, and what is best for America may not be best for the citizens of the monarchy or for the immigrants who work for the oil companies there. There is also the Washington triangle of politicians, corporations, and the people paid by the corporations to influence the politicians.
It can be tough to watch, not just because it makes you work hard to understand what is happening in the movie, but because it makes you work hard to understand what is happening in the world. A businessman argues for the indispensability of corruption. Many people pay terrible prices to get what they want, sacrificing partners, family members, and themselves. They may not ask themselves if what they want is worth it, but we must.
The writing and performances are superb, especially Clooney (looking two decades older with an extra 30 pounds), Jeffrey Wright as a Washington lawyer, and Alexander Siddig as a prince. It keeps you off-balance and unsettled and yet settles itself over you with a sickening inevitablity. A story like this needs to be told in a way that will keep you wondering as you drive home — especially if you stop to fill the gas tank along the way.
Parents should know that this is a very intense movie with graphic peril and violence, including torture, suicide, terrorisim, and assassination. Characters are injured and killed. Characters drink, smoke, and use strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about who is in the best position to address the problems of corruption and abuse in the oil business, and what they themselves can do. They can find more information at sites maintained by the National Commission on Energy Policy, the Department of Energy, and the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality. And those who want some questions about the plot answered can check the discussion at Wikipedia and add their own comments.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Traffic and the miniseries that inspired it, Traffik.