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With Its Simple Message, Complexity of "Syriana" Is Ironic

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • Updated Jun 26, 2006
With Its Simple Message, Complexity of "Syriana" Is Ironic

Release Date:  June 20, 2006
Rating:  R (for violence and language)
Genre:  Drama/Thriller
Run Time:  128 min.
Director:  Stephen Gaghan
Based on the Book by:  Robert Baer
Actors:  George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Mazir Munir, Tim Blake Nelson, Alexander Siddig, Amanda Peet

Before you begin watching this DVD, make sure to refill your drink and visit the bathroom.  No talking, either, or you’ll miss one of the mind-boggling plot points.  In fact, come to think of it, you may not even want to blink.

Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a CIA agent with a specialty in Middle Eastern politics.  After unloading two Stinger missiles in Tehran (and in one of the film’s main trailer moments), he assassinates a couple of arms dealers with a fiery explosion.  The only problem is, one of the missiles has just been carted off by a mysterious Arab. 

Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an energy trading analyst who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, with his wife (Amanda Peet) and children.  After a tragic accident, Woodman connects with Prince Nassir (Alexander Siddig), a progressive thinker who has recently awarded a contract to the Chinese for drilling rights in his oil-rich, Gulf country.  Partly to assuage his guilt toward Woodman, but also to fulfill his dream of rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, Nassir hires Woodman as a financial consultant.  Woodman sees Nassir as an “ATM on his front lawn,” but his wife is disgusted.

After Nassir’s decision to work with the Chinese, Connex, a mammoth Texas oil company, decides to merge with Killen, a smaller company that has recently obtained drilling rights in Kazakhstan.  Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) heads the D.C. legal firm charged with making sure the merger goes through.  While Nassir wines and dines the Chinese, Whiting capitalizes on the failing health of Nassir’s father.  He begins negotiating with Nassir’s younger brother to return drilling rights to the U.S., in exchange for making him, rather than Nassir, the next emir. 

The Justice Department, assuming that corruption must be involved, begins to investigate and believes they have found the evidence they need.  Then the CIA charges Barnes with taking out Nassir.  But when plans go awry, Barnes ends up as a rogue agent.  Meanwhile, a fired Pakistani oil worker is being seduced by a malevolent cleric in a local madrassa, which doubles as a terrorist training ground.  Suddenly, the missing Stinger appears.

Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for his excellent “Traffic” screenplay, “Syriana” is Gaghan’s second directorial effort but just one of the many films and hit television shows that he has written (most notably, “Hill Street Blues”).  In “Traffic,” Gaghan explored the multitude of people who grow, harvest, transport, distribute, buy and police drugs, using a jigsaw puzzle-like approach where everything comes together in the end.  “Syriana” is equally fast-paced with a multitude of interweaving plots and characters.  But, while the non-linear storytelling worked with “Traffic,” it does not here.  “Syriana” has so many characters and plot lines that audiences are likely to be confused throughout the film, and perhaps even afterwards as well. 

Like “Traffic,” there is good dialogue.  Take, for example, a passionate speech about corruption.  “Corruption is why we are warm and safe,” says a lawyer.  “Corruption is why we are warm and fed.  Corruption is why you and I are here, prancing around, rather than fighting each other for scraps of meat in the street. Corruption is why we win.”  In another scene, yet another D.C. lawyer quips, “In this town, you’re innocent until you’re investigated.”  And a would-be terrorist jokes, “If man is made in God’s image, then God is deeply messed up.”

The acting is also stellar, which is to be expected from this all-star line-up.  Sporting an extra fifty pounds and a scraggly beard (worth the price of the rental alone), Clooney is excellent as the desperate CIA agent at the end of his career.  Damon, as always, is also good, giving nuance to the role of the grieving but greedy father.  Plummer is pure evil, and it’s nice to see Peet in such a serious role.  All of the actors in this ensemble, in fact, do a great job.  If only they had more screen time.

Because they don’t, their characters unfortunately lean toward the stereotypical.  This is perhaps more an issue of direction, which cuts scenes so short that there’s no time to see anything but surface.  The rogue CIA agent, the naïve young terrorist, the Iranian arms dealer, the progressive Arab, the greedy Texas oil magnate, the crooked D.C. lawyer – we’ve seen them all before, and Gaghan brings nothing new to the table.  Despite attempts to give this story shades of grey, most everyone comes across as either good or bad.  All they’re missing are the black and white ten-gallon hats.

“Syriana”'s confusing complexity is ironic, because its message is simple.  In “Traffic,” Gaghan showed us how complex the drug problem is, and how it’s driven by American demand.  Here, he attempts to do the same thing, hammering the point that as long as America is greedy for oil, corruption will abound.  It’s a good point, and one worth exploring.  But unfortunately, this film makes it too simple.  Nothing is ever that easy or clear-cut.  Even corruption.


  • A Conversation with George Clooney – Clooney shares his thoughts on the making of the film, which was shot on location in Morocco.
  • “Make a Change, Make a Difference” – the filmmakers and actors discuss their views on the Middle East and American consumption of oil, with information about a web site people can visit.  They also discuss the making of the film, with more interview footage of Clooney.
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Theatrical Trailer 



  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Several scenes with drinking and possible drug use.
  • Language/Profanity:  Approximately a dozen profanities and obscenities, some strong.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  A woman changes from party clothes to Middle Eastern dress (no nudity).
  • Violence:   Many situations of extreme peril (guns, explosions, terrorism). One scene contains extremely graphic and bloody physical torture.