Syriana (2005)

Rated R Our ratings: V-6 ; L-4 ; S/N-1 .

Running time: 2 hours 2 min. Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” Psalm 2:1-2 Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes… Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!
Isaiah 5:18, 20-21

Syriana

Director Stephan Gaghan has taken Robert Baer’s non-fictional memoir of his career in the CIA See No Evil and created a fast-paced political/economic thriller that keeps us somewhat confused and guessing about the meaning of the incidents that flash by our eyes so swiftly. More complex than even Crash or one of the many Robert Altman films, with their multi-character storylines, Syriana is the most unsettling film that I have seen this year. Unsettling not only in the sense that I often did not know what or why something was happening in a scene, but unsettling in that the amoral characters and their sometimes immoral actions are what makes possible our having the fuel that propels our cars, heats our homes, and is so vital for the manufacture of so many of our products.

The film’s intricate plot moves us from Tehran, Iran to Geneva, the US Department of Justice and the streets of Washington, DC, a game ranch and the office of an oil company in Texas, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, a comfortable home in a Maryland suburb, as well as in Geneva Switzerland, a top secret CIA command center, and the hot, grimy oil field of a Persian Gulf emirate. The stories, involving a wide assortment of characters, seem random at first, sometimes intersecting, until at the end of the film we ultimately see their connection. Oil is at the center of all the stories: some possess it, others seek it, some find work in its production, still others investigate those who seek it, and a few kill for it.

Although no review can possibly deal with the details of all the storylines, here are some of the strands. A bearded, beefed up George Clooney plays Bob Barnes, a CIA agent involved in assassinating two Middle Easterners, apparently enriches himself on the side by dealing in high tech weapons, such as a pair of stinger missile launchers. In an unnamed Persian Gulf state Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the older of two sons groomed to take over affairs of state when his ailing father gives the word, gives the natural gas rights to the Chinese, setting off alarm bells in both business and government in the USA. In Texas the heads of a large oil company named Connex chafe at losing their rights in the emirate, so they start negotiations to buy a small oil company called Killen because it has pulled off a coup by signing a deal to drill for oil in Kazakhstan. The U.S. government must approve such a take-over, so Connex turns to a powerful Washington law firm headed by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) to make sure that the government agency approves the plan. Whiting gives the assignment to Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) to handle the details.

Meanwhile at the oil facility in the emirate three Pakistani workers are laid off because the Chinese are reducing the workforce. Fearful that they will be deported back to Pakistan where they had lived in poverty, the three seek for new jobs before their work permits expire. One of them, Wasim Ahmed Khan (Mazhar Munir), will be seduced at the Muslim school he and his friend attend to become a suicide bomber. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) lives with his wife and two young sons in Geneva, where he works as an energy analyst. Following the tragic death of his oldest son at a celebration on the estate of Prince Nasir, he becomes the adviser of the Prince, whom he is surprised to discover has great dreams of reforming the government of the emirate and improve the lives of his impoverished people. However, the US business and government have other plans: Dean Whiting, with his international connections and knowledge that the younger son will be more pliable to American interests, pressures the old emir to appoint the playboy son to become heir to the throne rather than Prince Nasir. When Prince Nasir decides to resist his father, a deadly plan that involves sending Bob Barnes on what is supposed to be his last mission before being promoted to a desk job in the agency.

Stephan Gaghan spent a year in research for his film, traveling to all the places depicted in it. Author Robert Baer briefed him and with his old CIA connections arranged for the filmmaker to meet and interview a large assortment of people in government and in the oil business—and even a leader of Hezbollah. Thus this is no mere Hollywood film dreamed up by writers obsessed with conspiracy theories. The film should be seen and discussed by all who are concerned about our national and global relationships between business and government. There are few if any heroes in the film, virtually all of the characters having dirt or blood on their hands. Probably Prince Nasir deserves the hero title, his character being especially important in reminding us that there are moderate Muslim leaders who would lead their people into democratic ways—but that they too often pay a terrible price in fighting against fanaticism. One character is especially interesting, the lowly, laid-off Pakistani oil worker who despairs of the future, and thus becomes easy prey for the slick recruiter of a terrorist group. The only other such revealing depiction of a young Muslim recruited by terrorists is in the Israeli film Paradise Now, reviewed elsewhere in this issue.

Writer/director Stephan Gaghan offers no solutions in his disturbing film, just a series of interlocking stories. He has stated that he wanted to start people thinking about and discussing the issues of energy and power. While working on his Oscar-winning script for Traffic, he came to see that the West has an addiction for cheap oil, as the source for cheap energy, akin to drug addiction, one that also leads to drastic, tragic consequences. Let us hope that a large number of us, in and out of the church, will take up the discussion hoped for by Mr. Gaghan.

For Reflection/Discussion

(Note that there are possible spoilers in several of the following questions, so you might want to read just to the end of the end of the Character/Cast list before seeing the film.)

1) The ensemble cast is so large that the following list might help sort things out. Note that this includes only the major characters: a) Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA agent whose far-flung travels have led to the distancing of himself from his wife and college-bound son. He believes that his covert work is right and helps his country, but how does he come to see things by the end of the film?

b) Fred Franks (Tom McCarthy), Bob’s immediate superior at the CIA.

c) Terry George (Jamey Sheridan), Deputy CIA Chief.

d) Stan Goff (William Hurt), retired from the CIA, he was an associate of Bob’s.

e) Marilyn Richards (Viola Davis), deputy National Security Advisor, and thus responsible for approval of decisions to “take out” those deemed dangerous to US national security.

f) CIA Division Chief (Jayne Atkinson).

g) Lee Janus (Peter Gerety), Chairman of Connex Oil.

h) Tommy Thompson (Robert Foxworth), President of Connex Oil.

i) Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), owner of Killen Oil.

j) Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), Texas oilman working with Jimmy Pope.

k) Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), head of Sloan Whiting law firm hired to shepherd the Connex-Killen oil deal through the Government approval process.

l) Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), lawyer assigned by Whiting to handle the details of the oil deal.

m) Assistant Attorney General Donald Farish III (David Clennon), investigating the oil merger, former law professor of Bennett Holiday’s.

n) Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an energy analyst living in Geneva, who becomes a consultant to and admirer of Prince Nasir.

o) Julie Woodman (Amanda Peet), Bryan’s wife who becomes distant from him after the death of their older son, when he becomes energy adviser to Prince Nasir, on whose estate their son died in a swimming pool accident.

p) Prince Nasir (Alexander Saddig), idealistic oldest son and apparent heir of the Emir, whose resistance to American power, leading to his giving oil rights to the Chinese, makes him the target of a CIA plot.

q) Prince Meshal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha), the Emir’s younger playboy son, whom the elderly ruler, under American pressure, appoints as his successor, rather than Prince Emir.

r) Emir Hammad Al- Subaai (Nadim Sawalha), the about to retire Emir.

s) Wasim Ahmed Khan (Mazhar Munir), the laid-off oil field worker who is recruited by a Muslim terrorist.

2) Why do you think Bob Barnes is upset when one of the stinger launchers he has delivered is given to another purchaser? When do you see this buyer and the weapon later on in the film? How does this transaction connect to laid-off Wasim Ahmed Khan?

3) What seem to be the driving motives of the oil industry men? What do you think of Danny Dalton’s statement to Bennett Holiday? “Corruption charges…corruption? Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That’s Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the street. Corruption…is why we win.” Compare this to the famous statement about the goodness of greed made by the Michael Douglas character in Wall Street.

4) What do you think about the CIA’s use (or misuse?) of Bob Barnes, especially after his torture in Beirut? How does Barnes change when he discovers this? What is he attempting to do at the climax of the film? How is the image of a blindfolded Robert, driven through the streets of Beirut, symbolic also of his status as a CIA operative?

5) What does Bryan Woodman think of Prince Nasir when they first meet? Why does the Prince offer him a position? Why does he change his opinion? How are these two perhaps the only “heroes” in the film? And yet how does Bryant show insensitivity toward his wife when he accepts the Prince’s offer?

6) What do you think of the plot against Prince Nasir? The film ends shortly after the plot is executed, but what kinds of repercussions might it have throughout the Middle East? Compare this fictional CIA action with the real one involving the CIA’s role in the removal of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1952-53. For details on this go to the Wikipedia site at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mossadegh. How is oil involved in both stories?

7) How is Wasim Ahmed Khan involved in the over all story? What does his story reveal about the plight of thousands of migrant workers from Pakistan and other nations? What are their working conditions like? Similar to what migrant farm workers once endured in the US? How do you think all this led to the young man’s decision to join the terrorists?

8) At what points do you see God at work in the film—or do you? Do Psalm 2 and the prophet Isaiah provide any perspective on this?

Syriana Rated R Our ratings: V-6 ; L-4 ; S/N-1 . Running time: 2 hours 2 min.

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” Psalm 2:1-2

Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes… Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!

Isaiah 5:18, 20-21

Director Stephan Gaghan has taken Robert Baer’s non-fictional memoir of his career in the CIA See No Evil and created a fast-paced political/economic thriller that keeps us somewhat confused and guessing about the meaning of the incidents that flash by our eyes so swiftly. More complex than even Crash or one of the many Robert Altman films, with their multi-character storylines, Syriana is the most unsettling film that I have seen this year. Unsettling not only in the sense that I often did not know what or why something was happening in a scene, but unsettling in that the amoral characters and their sometimes immoral actions are what makes possible our having the fuel that propels our cars, heats our homes, and is so vital for the manufacture of so many of our products.

The film’s intricate plot moves us from Tehran, Iran to Geneva, the US Department of Justice and the streets of Washington, DC, a game ranch and the office of an oil company in Texas, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, a comfortable home in a Maryland suburb, as well as in Geneva Switzerland, a top secret CIA command center, and the hot, grimy oil field of a Persian Gulf emirate. The stories, involving a wide assortment of characters, seem random at first, sometimes intersecting, until at the end of the film we ultimately see their connection. Oil is at the center of all the stories: some possess it, others seek it, some find work in its production, still others investigate those who seek it, and a few kill for it.

Although no review can possibly deal with the details of all the storylines, here are some of the strands. A bearded, beefed up George Clooney plays Bob Barnes, a CIA agent involved in assassinating two Middle Easterners, apparently enriches himself on the side by dealing in high tech weapons, such as a pair of stinger missile launchers. In an unnamed Persian Gulf state Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the older of two sons groomed to take over affairs of state when his ailing father gives the word, gives the natural gas rights to the Chinese, setting off alarm bells in both business and government in the USA. In Texas the heads of a large oil company named Connex chafe at losing their rights in the emirate, so they start negotiations to buy a small oil company called Killen because it has pulled off a coup by signing a deal to drill for oil in Kazakhstan. The U.S. government must approve such a take-over, so Connex turns to a powerful Washington law firm headed by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) to make sure that the government agency approves the plan. Whiting gives the assignment to Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) to handle the details.

Meanwhile at the oil facility in the emirate three Pakistani workers are laid off because the Chinese are reducing the workforce. Fearful that they will be deported back to Pakistan where they had lived in poverty, the three seek for new jobs before their work permits expire. One of them, Wasim Ahmed Khan (Mazhar Munir), will be seduced at the Muslim school he and his friend attend to become a suicide bomber. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) lives with his wife and two young sons in Geneva, where he works as an energy analyst. Following the tragic death of his oldest son at a celebration on the estate of Prince Nasir, he becomes the adviser of the Prince, whom he is surprised to discover has great dreams of reforming the government of the emirate and improve the lives of his impoverished people. However, the US business and government have other plans: Dean Whiting, with his international connections and knowledge that the younger son will be more pliable to American interests, pressures the old emir to appoint the playboy son to become heir to the throne rather than Prince Nasir. When Prince Nasir decides to resist his father, a deadly plan that involves sending Bob Barnes on what is supposed to be his last mission before being promoted to a desk job in the agency.

Stephan Gaghan spent a year in research for his film, traveling to all the places depicted in it. Author Robert Baer briefed him and with his old CIA connections arranged for the filmmaker to meet and interview a large assortment of people in government and in the oil business—and even a leader of Hezbollah. Thus this is no mere Hollywood film dreamed up by writers obsessed with conspiracy theories. The film should be seen and discussed by all who are concerned about our national and global relationships between business and government. There are few if any heroes in the film, virtually all of the characters having dirt or blood on their hands. Probably Prince Nasir deserves the hero title, his character being especially important in reminding us that there are moderate Muslim leaders who would lead their people into democratic ways—but that they too often pay a terrible price in fighting against fanaticism. One character is especially interesting, the lowly, laid-off Pakistani oil worker who despairs of the future, and thus becomes easy prey for the slick recruiter of a terrorist group. The only other such revealing depiction of a young Muslim recruited by terrorists is in the Israeli film Paradise Now, reviewed elsewhere in this issue.

Writer/director Stephan Gaghan offers no solutions in his disturbing film, just a series of interlocking stories. He has stated that he wanted to start people thinking about and discussing the issues of energy and power. While working on his Oscar-winning script for Traffic, he came to see that the West has an addiction for cheap oil, as the source for cheap energy, akin to drug addiction, one that also leads to drastic, tragic consequences. Let us hope that a large number of us, in and out of the church, will take up the discussion hoped for by Mr. Gaghan.

For Reflection/Discussion

(Note that there are possible spoilers in several of the following questions, so you might want to read just to the end of the end of the Character/Cast list before seeing the film.)

1) The ensemble cast is so large that the following list might help sort things out. Note that this includes only the major characters: a) Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA agent whose far-flung travels have led to the distancing of himself from his wife and college-bound son. He believes that his covert work is right and helps his country, but how does he come to see things by the end of the film?

b) Fred Franks (Tom McCarthy), Bob’s immediate superior at the CIA.

c) Terry George (Jamey Sheridan), Deputy CIA Chief.

d) Stan Goff (William Hurt), retired from the CIA, he was an associate of Bob’s.

e) Marilyn Richards (Viola Davis), deputy National Security Advisor, and thus responsible for approval of decisions to “take out” those deemed dangerous to US national security.

f) CIA Division Chief (Jayne Atkinson).

g) Lee Janus (Peter Gerety), Chairman of Connex Oil.

h) Tommy Thompson (Robert Foxworth), President of Connex Oil.

i) Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), owner of Killen Oil.

j) Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), Texas oilman working with Jimmy Pope.

k) Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), head of Sloan Whiting law firm hired to shepherd the Connex-Killen oil deal through the Government approval process.

l) Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), lawyer assigned by Whiting to handle the details of the oil deal.

m) Assistant Attorney General Donald Farish III (David Clennon), investigating the oil merger, former law professor of Bennett Holiday’s.

n) Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an energy analyst living in Geneva, who becomes a consultant to and admirer of Prince Nasir.

o) Julie Woodman (Amanda Peet), Bryan’s wife who becomes distant from him after the death of their older son, when he becomes energy adviser to Prince Nasir, on whose estate their son died in a swimming pool accident.

p) Prince Nasir (Alexander Saddig), idealistic oldest son and apparent heir of the Emir, whose resistance to American power, leading to his giving oil rights to the Chinese, makes him the target of a CIA plot.

q) Prince Meshal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha), the Emir’s younger playboy son, whom the elderly ruler, under American pressure, appoints as his successor, rather than Prince Emir.

r) Emir Hammad Al- Subaai (Nadim Sawalha), the about to retire Emir.

s) Wasim Ahmed Khan (Mazhar Munir), the laid-off oil field worker who is recruited by a Muslim terrorist.

2) Why do you think Bob Barnes is upset when one of the stinger launchers he has delivered is given to another purchaser? When do you see this buyer and the weapon later on in the film? How does this transaction connect to laid-off Wasim Ahmed Khan?

3) What seem to be the driving motives of the oil industry men? What do you think of Danny Dalton’s statement to Bennett Holiday? “Corruption charges…corruption? Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That’s Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the street. Corruption…is why we win.” Compare this to the famous statement about the goodness of greed made by the Michael Douglas character in Wall Street.

4) What do you think about the CIA’s use (or misuse?) of Bob Barnes, especially after his torture in Beirut? How does Barnes change when he discovers this? What is he attempting to do at the climax of the film? How is the image of a blindfolded Robert, driven through the streets of Beirut, symbolic also of his status as a CIA operative?

5) What does Bryan Woodman think of Prince Nasir when they first meet? Why does the Prince offer him a position? Why does he change his opinion? How are these two perhaps the only “heroes” in the film? And yet how does Bryant show insensitivity toward his wife when he accepts the Prince’s offer?

6) What do you think of the plot against Prince Nasir? The film ends shortly after the plot is executed, but what kinds of repercussions might it have throughout the Middle East? Compare this fictional CIA action with the real one involving the CIA’s role in the removal of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1952-53. For details on this go to the Wikipedia site at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mossadegh. How is oil involved in both stories?

7) How is Wasim Ahmed Khan involved in the over all story? What does his story reveal about the plight of thousands of migrant workers from Pakistan and other nations? What are their working conditions like? Similar to what migrant farm workers once endured in the US? How do you think all this led to the young man’s decision to join the terrorists?

8) At what points do you see God at work in the film—or do you? Do Psalm 2 and the prophet Isaiah provide any perspective on this?