Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Stephen Gaghan|
|Written by||Stephen Gaghan|
|Based on||See No Evil
by Robert Baer
|Music by||Alexandre Desplat|
|Edited by||Tim Squyres|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros. Pictures|
|Box office||$94 million|
Syriana is a 2005 geopolitical thriller film written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, and executive produced by George Clooney, who also stars in the film with an ensemble cast. Gaghan's screenplay is loosely adapted from Robert Baer's memoir See No Evil. The film focuses on petroleum politics and the global influence of the oil industry, whose political, economic, legal, and social effects are experienced by a Central Intelligence Agency operative (George Clooney), an energy analyst (Matt Damon), a Washington, D.C. attorney (Jeffrey Wright), and a young unemployed Pakistani migrant worker (Mazhar Munir) in an Arab state in the Persian Gulf. The film also features an extensive supporting cast including Amanda Peet, Tim Blake Nelson, Mark Strong, Alexander Siddig, Amr Waked, and Academy Award winners Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper and William Hurt.
Clooney won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Bob Barnes, and Gaghan's script was nominated by the Academy for Best Original Screenplay. As of April 20, 2006, the film had grossed a total of $50.82 million at the U.S. box office and $42.9 million overseas, for a total of $93.73 million.
U.S. energy giant Connex is losing control of key Middle East oil fields in a kingdom ruled by the al-Subaai family. The emirate's foreign minister, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), has granted natural gas drilling rights to a Chinese company, greatly upsetting the U.S. oil industry and government. To compensate for its decreased production capacity, Connex initiates a shady merger with Killen, a smaller oil company that recently won the drilling rights to key petroleum fields in Kazakhstan. Connex-Killen ranks as the world's twenty-third largest economy, and antitrust regulators at the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) have misgivings. A Washington, D.C.-based law firm headed by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) is hired to smooth the way for the merger. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is assigned to promote the impression of due diligence to the DOJ, deflecting any allegations of corruption.
Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an energy analyst based in Geneva, Switzerland. Woodman's supervisor directs him to attend a private party hosted by the emir at his estate in Marbella, Spain, to offer his company's services. The emir's illness during the party prevents Woodman from speaking directly with him while, at the same time, the emir's younger son, Prince Meshal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha), shows the estate's many rooms and areas to Chinese oil executives via remote-controlled cameras. No one notices that a crack in one of the swimming pool area's underwater lights has electrified the water. Just as Woodman and all the other guests are brought to the pool area, Woodman's son jumps into the pool and is electrocuted.
In reparation and out of sympathy for the loss of his son, Prince Nasir, the emir's older son, grants Woodman's company oil interests worth US$75 million, and Woodman, though initially insulted by the offer, gradually becomes his economic advisor. Prince Nasir is dedicated to the idea of progressive reform and understands that oil dependency is not sustainable in the long term; Nasir wants to utilize his nation's oil profits to diversify the economy and introduce democratic reforms, in sharp contrast to his father's repressive government, which has been supported by American interests. His father, at the urging of the American government, names the younger Meshal (who has gained the favor of Whiting) as his successor, causing Nasir to attempt a coup.
Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a veteran Operations Officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trying to stop illegal arms trafficking in the Middle East. While on assignment in Tehran, Iran, to kill two arms dealers, Barnes notices that one of two anti-aircraft missiles (actually the Stinger MANPADS) intended to participate in an explosion was diverted to an Egyptian (Amr Waked), while the other explodes and kills the two arms dealers, who are later also revealed to be "Iranian Intelligence agents." Barnes makes his superiors nervous by writing memos about the missile theft and is subsequently reassigned to a desk job. However, unaccustomed to the political discretion required, he quickly embarrasses the wrong people by speaking his mind and is sent back to the field with the assignment of assassinating Prince Nasir, whom the CIA identifies as being the financier behind the Egyptian's acquisition of the missile. Prior to his reassignment, Barnes confides in his ex-CIA agent friend, Stan Goff (William Hurt), that he will return to Lebanon. Goff advises him to clear his presence with Hezbollah so they know he is not acting against them. Barnes travels to Lebanon, obtains safe passage from a Hezbollah leader, and hires a mercenary named Mussawi (Mark Strong) to help kidnap and murder Nasir. But Mussawi has become an Iranian agent and has Barnes abducted. Mussawi tortures Barnes and prepares to behead him. Just before he is about to cut off Barnes' head, the Hezbollah leader arrives and stops him.
When the CIA learns that Mussawi plans to broadcast the agency's intention to kill Nasir, they set Barnes up as a scapegoat, portraying him as a rogue agent. Barnes's boss, Terry George, worries that Barnes might talk about the Nasir assassination plan, about the possibility that Nasir's coup might have a greater likelihood of success, and that killing Nasir with an MQ-1 Predator drone would make it obvious as an American-backed assassination. He has Barnes's passports revoked, locks him out of his computer at work, and initiates an investigation of him. Barnes, however, learns from Goff that Whiting, working on behalf of a group of businessmen calling themselves The Committee to Liberate Iran, is responsible for Barnes's blackballing and the assassination job, and threatens him and his family unless he halts the investigation and releases Barnes's passports.
After Barnes eventually learns why he was portrayed as a rogue agent, he returns to the Middle East and approaches Prince Nasir's convoy to warn him of the assassination plan. As he arrives, a guided bomb from a circling Predator drone strikes the automobile of Nasir and his family, killing them instantly. Woodman, having earlier offered his seat in Nasir's car to members of his family, survives the missile strike and goes home to his wife and son.
Pakistani migrant workers Saleem Ahmed Khan (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) board a bus to go to work at a Connex refinery, only to discover that they have been laid off due to a Chinese company outbidding Connex for the rights to run the facility. Since the company had provided food and lodging, the workers face the threat of poverty and deportation due to their unemployed status. Wasim desperately searches for work but is refused because he doesn't speak Arabic. Wasim and his friend join an Islamic school to learn Arabic in order to improve their employment prospects. While playing soccer, they meet a charismatic Islamic fundamentalist cleric—the same man who earlier acquired Bob Barnes' anti-aircraft missile in Tehran—who eventually leads them to execute a suicide attack on a Connex-Killen LNG tanker using a shaped-charge explosive from the missing Tehran missile.
Bennett Holiday meets with U.S. Attorney Donald Farish III (David Clennon), who is convinced that Killen bribed someone to get the drilling rights in Kazakhstan. While investigating Connex-Killen's records, Holiday discovers a wire transfer of funds that leads back to a transaction between Texas oilman and Killen Co. colleague Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) and Kazakh officials. Holiday tells Connex-Killen of his discovery, and they pretend not to have known about it. Holiday advises Dalton that he will likely be charged with corruption in order to serve as a "body" to get the DOJ off the back of the rest of Connex-Killen; Dalton responds with a fervent defense of how corruption is simply the way of competition and how America "wins" against the rest of the corrupt world. Farish then strong-arms Holiday into giving the DOJ information about illegal activities he has discovered. Holiday gives up Dalton, but Farish says this is not enough. Holiday meets with the CEO of Killen Oil, Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), and informs him that the DOJ needs a second body in order to drop the investigation. Pope asks Holiday whether a person at Holiday's firm above him would be sufficient as the additional body. Holiday acknowledges that if the name were big enough, the DOJ would stop the investigation and allow the merger.
Holiday is brought by his colleague and mentor Sydney Hewitt (Nicky Henson) to meet with the Chairman & CEO of Connex Oil, Leland "Lee" Janus (Peter Gerety). In a surprise move, Holiday reveals an under-the-table deal that Hewitt made while the Connex-Killen merger was being processed. Holiday has given Hewitt to the DOJ as the second body, thereby protecting the rest of Connex-Killen. Janus is able to accept the "Oil Industry Man of the Year" award with a load taken off his shoulders. Throughout the film, Holiday has angrily crossed paths with his alcoholic father Bennett Sr.; at the movie's end when the merger has been completed, Bennett Jr. brings his father into his house.
The final Holiday family scene serves to underscore the fact that every storyline here is built around major father–son relationships: Woodman returns home to embrace his surviving younger son following the killing of Prince Nasir, whose own father, the Emir, had rejected him. Wasim hugs and waves farewell to his totally unsuspecting father before embarking on his suicidal terrorist mission. And Bob Barnes, collateral damage in the Nasir assassination, leaves behind his only child, the high school senior who had earlier called both him and his CIA-employed mother "professional liars."
- George Clooney as Bob Barnes, a veteran CIA field officer stationed in the Middle East. His son is going to college and dislikes him for his job.
- Matt Damon as Bryan Woodman, an energy analyst living in Geneva, Switzerland with his wife and two sons.
- Jeffrey Wright as Bennett Holiday, an attorney employed by Whiting Sloan law firm and charged with investigating the proposed merger of oil companies, Connex and Killen.
- Christopher Plummer as Dean Whiting, managing partner of Whiting Sloan law firm, employer of Sydney Hewitt and Bennett Holiday; member of the Committee to Liberate Iran (CLI).
- Amanda Peet as Julie Woodman, Bryan's wife.
- Chris Cooper as Jimmy Pope, CEO of the Killen oil company.
- Tim Blake Nelson as Daniel "Danny" Dalton, Jr., Texas oilman, member of CLI, and friend of Jimmy Pope.
- William Hurt as Stan Goff, retired CIA agent and associate of Bob Barnes.
- Mark Strong as Mussawi, a mercenary hired by a Hezbollah leader.
- Robert Baer in a guest role, as a CIA officer.
- Mazhar Munir as Wasim Ahmed Khan, Pakistani migrant worker laid off from Connex.
- Alexander Siddig as Prince Nasir Al-Subaai, a prince and foreign minister of a Gulf country who is the first born son of the emir.
- Amr Waked as Muhammad Sheikh Agiza, the Egyptian Muslim cleric.
While working on Traffic, Stephen Gaghan began to see parallels between drug addiction and America's dependency on foreign oil. Another source of inspiration came from 9/11 and Gaghan's lack of knowledge about the Middle East. He said, "When 9/11 happened, it suddenly was a war on terror, which I think of as a war on emotions. It all started to click for me." A few weeks after 9/11, Steven Soderbergh sent Gaghan a copy of ex-CIA officer Robert Baer's memoir, See No Evil. The screenwriter read the book and wanted to turn it into a film because it added another layer to the story that Gaghan wanted to tell. Soderbergh bought the rights to See No Evil and negotiated the deal with Warner Bros.
Gaghan met Baer for lunch and then, for six weeks in 2002, the two men traveled from Washington to Geneva to the French Riviera to Lebanon, Syria and Dubai, meeting with lobbyists, arms dealers, oil traders, Arab officials and the spiritual leader of Hezbollah. Meeting Baer, Gaghan realized that the man had "gone out there and done and seen things that he was not allowed to talk about, and wouldn't, but he was angry about and also trying to make amends for." Before any filming took place, Gaghan convinced Warner Bros. to give him an unlimited research budget and no deadline. He did his own legwork, meeting with oil traders in London and lawyers in Washington, D.C. Moments after arriving in Beirut in 2002, Gaghan was taken from the airport in a blindfold and hood where he met with Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who was interested in films. He decided to grant the writer an audience even though he had not requested one. In addition, Gaghan dined with men suspected of killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and met with Former Defense Policy board chairman Richard Perle.
Another influence, or resource—one that might also explain the movie's use of a documentary clip featuring John D. Rockefeller—is the fact that Gaghan's fashion-designer wife Minnie Mortimer is the great-granddaughter of onetime Standard Oil executive Henry Morgan Tilford.
Harrison Ford turned down the role of Bob Barnes (the role played by George Clooney), regretting it later, stating, "I didn't feel strongly enough about the truth of the material and I think I made a mistake." This is the second Stephen Gaghan-written role Ford has declined, having turned down the role of Robert Wakefield in Traffic, a role that eventually went to Michael Douglas.
Gaghan shot in over 200 locations on four continents with 100 speaking parts. Syriana originally had five storylines, all of which were filmed. The fifth storyline, centering on Michelle Monaghan playing a Miss USA who becomes involved with a rich Arab oilman, was cut when the film became too complicated. Also, a role played by Greta Scacchi, as Bob Barnes' wife, was also cut before the final release. Parts of the film were shot in Dubai and other parts of the Middle East.
The movie's title is suggested to derive from the hypothesized Pax Syriana, as an allusion to the necessary state of peace between Syria and the U.S. as it relates to the oil business. In a December 2005 interview, Baer told NPR that the title is a metaphor for foreign intervention in the Middle East, referring to post-World War II think tank strategic studies for the creation of an artificial state (such as Iraq, created from elements of the former Ottoman Empire) that ensured continued western access to crude oil. The movie's website states that "‘Syriana’ is a real term used by Washington think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East." Gaghan said he saw Syriana as "a great word that could stand for man's perpetual hope of remaking any geographic region to suit his own needs." The word Syriana derives from Syria + the Latin suffix -ana; it means, roughly, "in the manner of Syria." Historically, Syria refers not to the state that since 1944 has borne the name, but to a more extensive land stretching from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the middle Euphrates River and the western edge of the desert steppe, and from the Tauric system of mountains in the north to the edge of the Sinai desert in the south. This land was part of the Fertile Crescent, and has historically been a geopolitically crucial junction for trade routes from the east, from Asia Minor and the Aegean, and from Egypt, and has long been a focus of great power conflicts. The word Syria does not appear in the Hebrew original of the Scriptures, but appears in the Septuagint as the translation of Aram. Herodotus speaks of "Syrians" as identical with Assyrians, but the term's geographical significance was not well defined in pre-Greek and Greek times. As an ethnic term, "Syrian" came to refer in Antiquity to Semitic peoples living outside Mesopotamian and Arabian areas. Greco-Roman administrations were the first to apply the term to a definite district.
Syriana was released on November 23, 2005 in limited release in only five theaters grossing $374,502 on its opening weekend. It went into wide release on December 9, 2005 in 1,752 theaters grossing $11.7 million on that weekend. It went on to make $50.8 million in North America and $43.1 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $93.9 million. Censor authorities in some parts of the Middle East censored parts of the movie, because it depicted foreigners being ill-treated. Although abuse of foreign workers is rife, the censor authorities deemed such scenes as insulting.
Syriana received generally positive reviews and has a 'certified fresh' rating of 72% On Rotten Tomatoes based on 193 reviews with an average score of 6.9 out of 10. The consensus states "Ambitious, complicated, intellectual, and demanding of its audience, Syriana is both a gripping geopolitical thriller and wake-up call to the complacent." The film also has a score of 76 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 40 critics indicating "Generally favorable reviews".
As a motion picture, the main criticism, even among reviewers who praised the film, was the confusion created by following numerous stories. Most critics stated that it was almost impossible to follow the plot, though some, notably Roger Ebert, praised precisely that quality of the film and offered an interesting hidden story possibility (a covert deal between the U.S. and China involving oil being shipped through Kazakhstan and passed off as coming from a different source). The audience confusion mimics the confusion of the characters, who are enmeshed in the events around them without a clear understanding of what precisely is going on. As with Gaghan's screenplay for Traffic, Syriana uses multiple, parallel storylines, jumping from locations in Texas, Washington D.C., Switzerland, Spain, and the Middle East, leading film critic Ebert to describe the film as hyperlink cinema.
Time magazine's Richard Corliss wrote, "Gaghan relies on Clooney's agnostic heroism to lure viewers into his maze. When they get there, they will find not a conventionally satisfying movie but a kind of illustrated journalism: an engrossing, insider's tour of the world's hottest spots, grandest schemes and most dangerous men." In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, "This is conspiracy-theory filmmaking of the most bravura kind, but if only a fraction of its suppositions are true, we—and the world—are in a world of trouble." USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "Gaghan assumes his audience is smart enough to follow his explosive tour of global petro-politics. The result is thought-provoking and unnerving, emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating." Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B−" rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, "it's also the kind of movie that requires a viewer to work actively for comprehension, and to chalk up any lack of same to his or her own deficiency in the face of something so evidently smart."
In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote: "If anything, Syriana tends to oversimplify a mind-bogglingly multifaceted problem that cannot so easily be resolved by a diatribe against the supposedly all-powerful 'Americans.'" Rolling Stone magazine's Peter Travers gave the film his highest rating and praised George Clooney's performance: "This is the best acting Clooney has ever done—he's hypnotic, haunting and quietly devastating." Philip French, in his review for The Observer, praised the film as "thoughtful, exciting and urgent". In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, "But what complicates the plot is writer-director Stephen Gaghan's reluctance to criticise America too much. Instead of complexity, there is a blank, uncompelling tangle, which conceals a kind of complacent political correctness."
Ebert named it the second-best film of 2005, behind Crash. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone named it as the third best film of 2005. Entertainment Weekly ranked Syriana as one of the 25 "Powerful Political Thrillers" in film history.
George Clooney won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture. He was also nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
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