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"What is the price of oil?"

Syriana is a complicated movie that is made with fictional characters, but supposed to be based on real-life issues and conflicts in the Middle East.

The film comes from writer/director Stephen Gaghan, winner of the Best Screenplay Academy Award for Traffic. It's similar to Traffic; multiple plots and characters revolving on a unified topical theme. The Tagline for the film is "Everything is Connected." The screenplay is based on See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, by Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who worked in the Middle East.

The plot? It's a political thriller that shows us the inside conflicts within the oil industry. You have governments getting desperate for a shrinking resource, Middle East leaders who want reform and maximized profits, shifting alliances and middlemen. The settings range from Tehran, to boardrooms, to Lebanon, to Geneva, to Washington DC, to desert oil-fields. The movie follows four characters around, and shows how each plays a role in the world oil affairs.

  • A CIA operative, played by George Clooney, working on weapons proliferation and assassinating certain people.
  • An oil broker/analyst, played by Matt Damon, who's working on a business deal with a reformist Arab prince (Alexander Siddig).
  • A corporate lawyer, played by Jeffrey Wright, who's working towards the corporate merger of two shady oil companies.
  • A young Pakistani immigrant worker who loses his job in the oil fields and falls in with a charismatic recruiter.

A lot goes on in this movie, and it certainly gave me plenty to think about. It goes into corruption and foreign influence. Heck, the movie opens with an arms deal and an American CIA agent planting a car bomb. (It was in the preview, I don't see it as a spoiler) It alludes to American influence of power in the Middle east over oil, but to its credit, provides characters who defend the practices, saying that China and other countries do the same thing and if America didn't (because of its ethics laws of American companies working overseas), it would lose the competition for the limited resource. It's hard to figure out who the good guy is, people you think are good aren't, and you see someone get tortured. There's a one-line bill mentioned in the film from a law firm to the Saudi government for "services rendered." (the film writer said in an interview it's an actual bill, and the services were allegedly to stop an FBI investigation) The film deals with contemporary issues, same as Traffic. It describes a lot, but doesn't give us a remedy or a solution, although the advertisements for the film do list an online campaign to reduce dependance on oil. As George Clooney said in an interview, it doesn't supply answers, but it opens things up for debate by getting people talking about it. He wanted to be clear that the film doesn't glorify terrorism (it really doesn't), but it tries to help audiences understand its workings.

George Clooney actually had to gain 35 pounds and grow a beard for this film, to better depict the middle-aged character. He also suffered a spinal injury during a rough scene, and later needed surgery and was bed-ridden for a month.

I purposely went with a group of Kuwaiti Arabs to see the film, and they were able to explain a lot. In short, they didn't really like it much. Their complaints were that the accents were horrible and they actually had to read the subtitles because the non-Arab actors were so bad. Although the Arab country is unnamed in the film (and most Americans will probably think its Saudi Arabia anyway), the subtle difference in dress indicates its United Arab Emirates. They also told me that these reform-minded leaders who exist in the film don't really advocate women's rights at all in the actual Gulf, far from it. One thing they disliked was the terrorism subplot; a disaffected immigrant goes to an Islamic school and decides to become a terrorist. They told me, and I agree, that the film depiction was completely false; Islamic schools aren't like that, and those terrorists we know of today become what they are through other means, outside of a school setting.

Syria isn't mentioned at all in the film, despite the title. I thought it maybe meant "Our Syria" but my Arabic-speaking friends disagreed with me.

Rated: R, 126 Minutes
Now playing in select cities (including NYC), opens nationwide December 9

After you see the film, there's a roundtable discussion with George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Siddig, See No Evil author Bob Baer, and writer/director Stephen Gaghan in NYC online, at http://pdl.warnerbros.com/wbmovies/syriana/podcast/SyrianaQandANov21.mp3

Ebert and Roper gave the film 2 thumbs way up, and it made both of their top 10 lists of 2005, grabbing first and second place on their respective lists.

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