Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Syriana – Oil politics: Review

Stephan Gaghan’s “Syriana” (released in India in April/May 2006) despite its many plots playing at different levels grips you with such clarity of form and content that you may want to see it for a second time. Not quite to understand it, but to enjoy its wonderful imagery, terrific editing that does not let your attention (except for some minutes in the middle) wander, and fine performances by George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright and others.

George Clooney being tortured in a scene from "Syriana"
Gaghan, who also wrote “Traffic”, bases “Syriana” on the memoirs of a CIA veteran, Robert Baer. His “See No Evil”, however, is not the complete basis for Gaghan’s film, who plays around with a web of deceit and terrorism, and contemporises them to include the post 9/11 dilemma and the politics of oil .

Nasir (portrayed by Alexander Siddig),depite his modern outlook to take his oil-rich kingdom to prosperity by trying to change established ties with the U.S., is termed a radical communist when he gives a huge contract to China, the highest bidder. He also loses the right to his younger brother (who as Nasir says is not even fit to manage a brothel)to succeed his father as the Emir.

Nasir’s economic adviser is Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), whose keen business sense is appreciated by his boss. There is one dramatic scene in the movie set in the blazing head of a desert, where Woodman tells Nasir that if he does not watch out, his people will go back to where they were a hundred years ago - in tents and driving mules.

Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is a rising American attorney assigned to study the suspected shady deals of an oil company, which had landed a plum contract in Kazakhastan.

Two workers, Saleem Ahmed Khan (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) have been laid off an oil field when the Chinese take over it. Wasim finds solace in religion, but eventually finds himself a victim of a carefully orchestrated plan. Wasim thinks that he will become a martyr. But does he ?

Bob Barnes (played admirably by George Clooney, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) is an aging CIA man -- with his hugh girth, grey beard, slow calculated walk and monosyllabic utterances -- who considers himself to be a patriot. He now looks forward to a few years of easy desk job after trying times as an undercover agent in hostile West Asia. But Barnes like Wasim becomes a scapegoat: one at the hands of a politial system that does not think twice about distancing itself from a loyal employee, and the other in the complexity of a belief, misplaced and disappointing in the ultimate analysis.

All these men are connected to one another, either directly or by a nefarious system which seeks to undermine individual dignity and the right to live.

“Syriana” may leave you with a feeling of anger, but its potential to entertain by raising issues that govern and disturb us makes this work one of the greats of the year. Undoubtedly, a work of fiction, “Syriana” can well be a subject of debate. Some of the points dealt with in it may seem rather cold, even odd. But, there are many others which make “Syriana” almost a study in realism.

(This review appeared in The Hindu dated May 5 2006)

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