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Volume 8, Issue 2                                    University of Houston

'Syriana' sheds light on America's hunger for oil

Talented cast and superb directing make for what will be one 
of the best films of the year

By Seth Mintz
Breaking News

In the midst of all the rubbish that Hollywood has produced of late is Syriana, a truly great film. Loosely based on Robert Baer's 2002 memoir See No Evil, Syriana packs a dynamic punch of first-rate acting, stellar directing and a plot that will make viewers think. This political thriller, which shows what America's oil addiction does to the many people involved with it, is one of the best movies of the year. 

The movie consists of interwoven stories that show how America's hunger for oil links people from Houston all the way to the Middle East. The film moves from place to place, revealing how widespread the effects that the drilling refining, selling and purchasing of oil can be. 

Director Stephen Gaghan (the Oscar-winning writer of Traffic) first introduces the rulers of a Persian Gulf country. The emir of the country seems to be nearing the end of his reign, and one of his two sons will succeed him. To be expected, one is clearly the right choice, but the "bad" son is chosen instead. Nasir (Alexander Saddig), the "good" son, has kicked out the American oil drillers and given the contract to a Chinese company. 

On the domestic front, Connex Oil decides to merge with Killen Oil. Because this merger would have to be approved by people in Washington, the oil companies hire a D.C. law firm, fronted by lawyer Bennett Holiday (played by the wonderful Jeffrey Wright). 

Syriana's unconventional structure does create some problems. The film has many fascinating plots and subplots, but, sadly, some characters are not as developed as they should be. Other characters are cryptic, their motives and personalities impossible to read. This is particularly true of the character played by George Clooney. It's unclear whether he's a loyal CIA agent, dedicated to his country's best interests, or if he's a rogue agent pursuing his personal agenda.

Matt Damon and Amanda Peet play an American couple living in Geneva. A family tragedy occurs at a party hosted by the emir, which Damon's character Bryan uses to help win business with Nasir. Bryan seems to have no qualms about exploiting a personal tragedy, even at the risk of his relationship with his wife for corporate gain.

What truly makes this movie work is how believable it is. In a time where Americans have seen ruthless business people, shady foreign governments, righteous political figures and people who will sell their souls for money, all of the characters seem authentic. The realness of this movie -- when movies nowadays seem so unbelievable -- is refreshing. Even viewers who do not agree with the politics (this movie clearly leans to the left and some characters, namely the oilmen, seem stereotypically heartless and uncaring) will find pleasure in watching the film. 

Be forewarned -- Syriana is a movie viewers must pay attention to because the stories are broken up into pieces and not shown sequentially. And sadly, despite all of the amazing acting from a fantastic script, the length of this film does not lead to full character development and will leave audiences feeling something is missing.

Syriana might have worked as well or even better as a miniseries on television. All of the stories are very interesting, especially George Clooney's. But even though he received top billing, Clooney seems underused and the movie suffers. When the stories collide and the characters' lives intersect, the meaning of oil politics on a global scale becomes clear, though the movie's fast pace and its staccato-like structure may undermine clarity for some viewers.

But despite these flaws, moviegoers should do themselves a favor and see this movie. There will not be a better-acted, better-directed and more emotional movie this year. 


Rated: R for language and violence

Starring: George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Damon

Verdict: Gaghan's film will make viewers think about what is going on in the world right now.

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