Posts Tagged Syriana

Film & DVD Review: Syriana

Reviewed by Patrick Harrington

Syriana DVD Cover

Click on image to buy DVD

Certification: Netherlands:16 / Norway:15 / Singapore:NC-16 / Switzerland:14 (canton of Vaud) / Switzerland:14 (canton of Geneva) / Germany:12 / Argentina:16 / UK:15 / Australia:MA / Finland:K-15 / France:U / Ireland:15A / Brazil:16 / USA:R

  • Runtime: 126 min
  • Country: USA
  • Language: English / Urdu / Arabic / Persian / French
  • Color: Color
  • Sound Mix: DTS / Dolby Digital / SDDS
  • Stephen Gaghan, wrote Traffic which was the winner of the Best Screenplay Academy Award. Gaghan has an unusual writing style and Syriana reflects this. It is a densely plotted and fast-moving political thriller. It conveys a lot of information and interlocking stories cut back and forth. It requires your attention but it also holds it.

    Syriana deals with big political issues but also moral ones. It illustrates the corruption of the oil industry and of State institutions. The central story of the film involves a questionable merger of two major American oil firms (Connex and Kileen). From there, everything else fans out. The story of Jeffrey Wright, the government official investigating the merger, George Clooney, the CIA operative with missions with no obvious goal, the Arab Emir from an unnamed oil producing country, and his two sons each wanting to take over his reign, the industry analyst (Matt Damon) who will use any situation to advance his company, and the young, poor, angry Arab youth who look for meaning and purpose in his life.

    Syriana leaves you wondering about political reform in Iran, what motivates a suicide bomber, America’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for fuel and exploitation of foreign workers in refinery compounds.

    Though this film has a heavy message it also manages to be more than mere agitprop. It has a number of strong performances. No single actor steals the show. Clooney stood out for me, though,as the disenchanted, somewhat seedy CIA man. It was brave of him to get a gut and an unkempt beard and leave behind his sex star status. He conveys a grim realism well and shows that he is an accomplished actor. It was also good to see Chris Cooper, playing a shrewd oilman, and Christopher Plummer, as the head of a corrupt law firm.

    The story while complex is not convoluted. That’s not to say that it’s easy (I would certainly enjoy and profit from watching it again). Another strength of this film is that it does not attempt to answer many of the questions it raises. It leaves ‘unfinished business’ just as in the real world. We have to make judgements and try to move forward. Syriana’s politics will undoubtedly alienate some. That doesn’t matter. It is a riveting movie told in bold and imaginative style. No happy ending is supplied but aren’t we still waiting for one here too?


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    Interviews: MATT DAMON (Bryan Woodman) Q&A

    QUESTION: This is not an easy film for the audience. Does the complexity come through in the process of making the film?

    MATT DAMON: Yeah. It’s a pretty complicated topic. We all did a lot of reading. [Stephen] Gaghan had a pretty good-sized reading list. He sent me like 12 books and I read some of them. I did my best.

    Q: What kind of books did he send you?

    MATT DAMON: Well, I read both of Bob Baer’s books, which are terrific, by the way. I highly recommend anybody out there going and picking them up. He’s just a really fascinating guy; really smart, really dedicated guy. And everything from books on oil, like the book The Prize, and one of Tom Freedman’s books, From Beirut to Jerusalem. They’re basically a syllabus for all of his actors. So, I worked my way through that. Maybe there are actors who can just show up and say lines and not have any idea what they’re talking about, but I’m not one of them. I have to be somewhat grounded in what I’m talking about. But, having said that, they had a couple of these oil guys there who were trying to explain to me the derivatives. I’m totally lost when these guys are talking. It really is complex stuff.

    Q: How much did you know about derivatives beforehand?

    MATT DAMON: I knew absolutely nothing. No. I would sit there and I would talk to these guys and we were talking about mergers and deals that I think anybody can relate to. So, if you just make emotional sense of that in your mind, then the minutia of what you’re talking about can be Greek.

    Q: Talk about the emotional stuff your character is going through.

    MATT DAMON: That’s the real part of my role that is important to the movie as a whole, the balance of the movie. You’ve got four storylines going. Mine is the most emotional from the outset because of what happens. So, in that sense, it’s the least complicated of the four stories. It’s very easy for an audience to follow what’s going on with the Bryan Woodman story because it’s this big visceral occurrence at the beginning of it. So, that was my job in this one – to try and make that stuff be believable. One of the things I really liked about it is Gaghan is not reductive with his characters. It’s not that the guy is just ambitious. All the characters are pretty complex, are human. They’re various shades of gray.

    Q: What were your impressions of how the people thought of you being there? Did you come to respect that community a little more?

    MATT DAMON: What, in Dubai? Everyone was very nice. Dubai is a pretty popular tourist destination, certainly for a lot of Europeans; lesser for Americans. But I wouldn’t say that I gained insight into the Middle East. Dubai is very different from other parts of the Middle East. It wasn’t like we were shooting in Saudi Arabia, Syria or Jordan. We stayed in a very nice hotel right on the Persian Gulf, and it didn’t feel like a cultural trip, necessarily. It felt like we were shooting 12 hours a day, and eating and sleeping and getting up and shooting again. It didn’t feel like a cultural exchange program or anything like that.

    Q: Do you have any insight into what’s going to happen over there?

    MATT DAMON: That’s a very good question. Bob’s second book is all about Saudi Arabia and it’s really interesting. He talks about it as this giant welfare state that’s about to collapse. It’s really on the verge of collapsing. The families keep growing and the oil’s running out; it’s going to collapse. Meanwhile, they’re funding a lot of these fundamentalist colleges. So, these guys are coming out of these colleges with no possible job opportunities but having this hard-line philosophy. It’s like a doomsday scenario over there. The way Bob talks about it, he doesn’t make it seem too complicated.

    Q: In this movie, did you get a sense of what it’s like to choose your job above your family and everything else?

    MATT DAMON: I don’t know that what I’m doing is necessarily just. He’s pretty ambitious, and he is trading on his son’s death. So, I wouldn’t say he’s doing something that’s totally noble. But, yeah, I do understand people who choose that. I met a lot of them – Bob, or guys like the technical adviser in this other movie I’m doing [The Good Shepherd], who put in 30 years at the CIA. They make huge sacrifices.

    Q: How did you like playing a family man?

    MATT DAMON: I liked it. I had fun. I really like the little boy, Nick. I hung out with him a lot, and he was a real cool kid.

    Q: Are you part of the celebrity crusade against gas-guzzling cars? Do you drive a hybrid?

    MATT DAMON: I do drive a hybrid, but I wouldn’t say I’m part of any crusade. Nobody called me that there was a crusade on. I just do it for my own personal reasons.

    Q: Which are?

    MATT DAMON: Well, I don’t have a car in New York. But we just got a place in Florida, so we got a car there, and it’s a hybrid. You don’t need all that car under you. I don’t need a Suburban to drive myself around. It just seems to make common sense to me. My father drives one; my brother drives one. Why would you ever drive a regular car? There’s no reason to. These cars are just as good; they just use less gas. So, I don’t understand why everyone isn’t driving them.

    Q: I saw your character as an ambitious guy who decides to be the reformer and take an emotional interest in the development of this country. How did you come about this?

    MATT DAMON: Well, with the death of his son, it’s like there’s this streak of nihilism that’s running through him, where he’s just like, “Fuck it.” He gets humiliated when he goes to pitch and he doesn’t even get into the room. So, now this guy says, ‘I’ll give you this field; one of these fields are about to open up.’ He is professionally a little better and personally pissed off and self-destructive enough to be able to make a suggestion like that. Plus, it’s not a bad idea to hook up with existing and run the oil overland rather than sail it all the way around Africa. It’s a good idea. And it’s kind of one of those common sense ideas, according to them, that is radical, but it makes total sense. Anybody who knows the ins and outs of it goes, ‘Yeah, well, that would be really smart, but it would cut all these people out of the pie.’ So, it never really gets suggested.

    Q: Your character essentially gets involved in a coup.

    MATT DAMON: Right. These two characters – one is this reformer and idealist, and the other one’s this nihilist who has had this personal tragedy – they just collide at the right or wrong time, depending on what your opinion is, and it goes from there.

    Q: Do you come away from this politically more aware?

    MATT DAMON: I know a little bit more about it. I’ve read a few more books than I’d read. I met some people that really do this for a living, and were really interesting to listen to, so there is a change. But the movie was made really to spark conversations. I know you guys have to be here and have to ask the questions. But hopefully, if people go see the movie, it’s the type of movie that they’ll go with someone and grab a drink afterwards and talk it through. It’s not meant to give you answers. It’s not like there’s a, ‘ta-dah! Here’s the solution.’

    Q: What did you and George do when you were not shooting? Was there a nightlife in Dubai? Did you hang out?

    MATT DAMON: No, no, no. He had put on all that weight, and he was really depressed. Did you guys see Super Size Me? The guy puts all the weight on but he gets depressed. And George was like that, because he’s a really active guy and he couldn’t move around. He had to just sit there, and I had never seen him like that before. He’s normally like the life of the party, but he was just really depressed. He also had his neck problem, so he was immobile and a little angry. But, coming out of it, he literally wrote and directed Good Night and Good Luck, and edited it and put it out. It was like he had so much drive coming off that experience because he was made to sit still for four months or so.

    Q: Would you ever envision yourself working in the government in any way, shape, or form?

    MATT DAMON: Yeah, yeah.

    Q: Doing what?

    MATT DAMON: Oh, I don’t know. There are so many different jobs that it’s like, ‘what other job would you like?’ I would never say that I’d be in the military, but my roommate from college had a job. He was in Special Forces, and he went to Bosnia and was hunting war criminals. I thought that was a pretty great job. He really would come out of there with these guys, and we’d take them over to the Hague, and I thought that was a pretty noble thing to do. So, I think there are some good jobs in the government.

    Q: What do you think the reaction will be from audiences to this movie?

    MATT DAMON: My hope is that people will really like it; people have been missing movies like that. There’s a lot of pressure on people who make movies to not make them confusing because you have two hours to tell a story, and the story costs x amount of dollars, and you want the maximum number of people to see it. The problem with that is that you get movies that are just so stupid that audiences don’t like them. I think people want the discourse to be elevated a little bit, to be a little more challenging with your subject matter, and with your characters, and not reductive about them. Look, it’s hard to read people in real life. I don’t know what you’re thinking right now. But a movie is going to tell you that I’m supposed to know exactly everything about you when you walk onscreen and open your mouth? I personally don’t think that’s that interesting. So, when you can make a movie that is a conversation-starter, I hope that the reaction will be like, ‘Thank God, we’ve been waiting for this.’

    Q: It seems like you want to avoid the celebrity crusades.

    MATT DAMON: Not at all. I don’t look to avoid it. The climate’s changing little bit now. People are starting to catch on. But, before, they were really good at characterizing anybody who spoke out, and cutting the legs out from under their argument. They’re pretty incredible. When you can make George Bush seem like the war hero and John Kerry like the draft dodger, it’s like: how did they do that? You know what I mean? But, no. I just want to say it right when I say it. I think that’s a mistake. People run their mouth off a little too much sometimes.

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    Interviews: GEORGE CLOONEY (Bob Barnes) Q&A

    QUESTION: Why was the time right for you to make this film?

    GEORGE CLOONEY: Well, it was an interesting time. When we decided to do it – it was a couple years ago, or three years ago, really – it was even a tougher time, if you remember, politically. Anybody who talked about anything, raised any questions at all, was framed as unpatriotic at that point. So, I thought it was fairly brave of the studio to be willing to jump onboard and take on some of the subject matter. When you see the film, it’s not an attack on the administration at all. It is certainly questioning 30 or 40 or 50 years of flawed policies in the Middle East, which I think everyone agrees with. Most of the conservatives who have seen the film agree with it. Most of the Liberals agree with it. So, to me, it wasn’t that. I felt we were fairly safe in taking on the subject matter. My job was to know as much as I could so I wouldn’t marginalize the piece. But I’m not the writer or the director. I spent a lot of time with Bob Baer – really interesting guy. For him, it was much more about the disenchantment of how little he was needed anymore. After the Berlin Wall came down, the decision was made by several administrations, including the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, which was: surveillance equipment would take care of it; you don’t need people who speak Arabic or Farsi. What you realize, of course, is that it would have been very helpful to have those people. We look at the problems with some of the evidence that led us into other places. It would have helped to have people in there speaking those languages. He’s very disenchanted with all of that. You guys have all seen him out speaking before, so that’s not something new.

    Q: What was the morale of the people there towards you? What was it like shooting this during the high holy holidays?

    GEORGE CLOONEY: Interesting. It’s an interesting thing to be shooting in Morocco and Dubai during Ramadan. And the Emir had just died, who, in Dubai, was basically the man who made Dubai what it is. He was about 100 years old. So, there was a huge funeral, and Mubarak and everybody showed up at our hotel. You think I had security guards – we look like the Mickey Mouse Club with these guys showing up. So, it was an interesting time to be there because you can’t eat during the day, and you have to play by their rules, which is a good thing. It’s a nice thing to do. But it’s very hot, and it’s a very different world. I was concerned with the idea that they wouldn’t understand what we were doing, that they would think that we were making a movie where it’s just black and white, bad guys, terrorists, because, as you guys know, we’re not the most popular country overseas. We were concerned with the idea that they didn’t think we were just flat out trying to characterize them as the evildoers. But I don’t know how you can translate that very well. If you have 400 extras who were all Muslims and a lot of them Islamic fundamentalists that are there with you, working side-by-side with you, I’m not quite sure if they ever understood that or not. They may when they see the film.

    Q: What was it like learning fluent Arabic for this movie?

    GEORGE CLOONEY: Brutal. Well, I don’t know if any of you can speak any of those languages. I had a roommate in college who was Iranian, so I understood and could speak a little bit of Farsi, which helped. There are some similarities, so it helped with the accent. But there are no Latin derivatives. So, it was a tricky thing to do. You learned it phonetically. You just did it over and over. I did it for two months, just to do those few paragraphs. I wake up in the middle of the night going (speaks Farsi) just because you had to learn it that way.

    Q: And what did you just say?

    GEORGE CLOONEY: I said “Hello.” (speaks Farsi)

    Q: Do you think that the film is doing things that journalism ought to be doing? Is that the place of a film to expose these things?

    GEORGE CLOONEY: Well, no. I think the difference between journalism and film is that I don’t think films are designed to provide answers. I think films are designed to ask questions. I think journalism is designed to ask questions to get answers. We’re actually just asking questions and sparking debate. That’s what we tried to do with Good Night, and Good Luck and it’s the same thing with this. For me, my job was to understand what Bob was doing as a producer of the film, to be well enough informed on the subject to understand the plot lines and what we were trying to tell. For Good Night, and Good Luck, I double-sourced every scene, because I owed it to the people whose story I was telling, which was a true story, not to get anything wrong, because if you got anything wrong, it would all be marginalized, which is the popular thing to do right now. There are some people out there that are anxiously trying to talk about what a great guy McCarthy is, which still blows my mind. So, with this film, my job was to be as best informed as I could be in general. But I always felt that way about anything. And then, to try and make it entertainment – because it is still a film. I think the good news about both these films is that they’re not civics lessons. They’re actually entertaining films. Tough, not easy, but entertaining films.

    Q: Did your political views change at all after making this movie?

    GEORGE CLOONEY: No, it doesn’t change things. And it doesn’t necessarily reinforce things either. What it really does is it opens your eyes to other issues and other thoughts. I remember standing on the roof of a building about four stories up as a siren went off, which would go every three hours during Ramadan. And you’d hear a prayer over loudspeakers – we were in Casablanca then – and everyone in South Dakar got out in the middle of the street and faced Mecca. A sea of people got out of their car, got out on the streets and kneeled down, faced Mecca and prayed. We were sitting there watching this and thinking, ‘if we think that we have religious clarity or any kind of a belief system that overrides anyone else’s’. When you see that, it would scare you – the idea that you could in some way bomb the Islamic fundamentalists away-and these were Islamic fundamentalists – but those guys are that passionate. And see how poor they are, and that is the only thing they have. It was scarier to me because I thought, ‘Well, I understand,’ in no way justifying what happens, obviously. Nobody here is saying, ‘the guys who are bombing people are good,’ but understanding how it can happen. And understanding why it can happen was really interesting.

    Q: I would imagine Bob Baer’s worldview can be a real education.

    GEORGE CLOONEY: I can’t tell what his political bent is. He spent a long time with me at my house. My sense is he’s probably a bit of a conservative who was ticked off at the Clinton administration mostly for his being taken out of the CIA slowly, or leaving the CIA – but equally as ticked off at the way that the information was used in the lead-up to the war. He was pretty mad about that as well. I think certainly the ex-operatives, and a lot of the people who were there in the CIA, felt the same way. I know the people in the State Department did. But he’s such an interesting guy. If you’re on a set, they’ll have a police expert; he’s a cop. He’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I killed six guys, shot this guy in the head three times. I capped him three times.’ They always tell you some story that probably didn’t happen. Here’s a guy who has probably done some pretty amazingly heinous things. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, there were some things that had to be taken care of that happened. But they didn’t want to side with us on that. So, I don’t really recall what happened.’ I’m like, ‘Well, the whole place was blown to bits.’ ‘Yeah, that’s probably what happened.’ Everything is very vague. He doesn’t ever say he has done anything, which makes you feel like he’s really done a lot. It was very strange having him at your house because he’s very smart, and he knows a lot about what he’s talking about, especially in the Middle East.

    Q: What do you think would have to happen to better realize the potential of television media to inspire thought and enlighten as well as entertain and distract?

    GEORGE CLOONEY: I don’t know. I was hoping that in putting a film like that out there, it would open the discussion for people who are in those positions – some of them are friends of mine – to say, ‘Okay, we understand that this is a dilemma. I understand that having watched what happened with my father as an anchorman, I understand that the idea is that news has a problem, which is, they’re losing viewers. And how do you keep news out there, and do you preserve it? Do you preserve it by destroying it along the way? And what do you do to not let that happen?’ So, it’s one of those difficult fights. I understand that it’s not black and white and easy. But I think it’s something that should be constantly waged and talked about and argued about, until somebody can come out with some solutions. I am concerned about the same thing that probably you-all are concerned with and the same thing that my father has been concerned with his whole life and fought, which was finding ways to have room for both, but not losing content along the way.

    Q: Talk about the through-line of the family throughout the course of the film despite the politics of the characters.

    GEORGE CLOONEY: There’s a through-line that you have to look for, which is fathers and sons. I think that’s an interesting through-line all the way through this. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity between them. Some of them play better than others; some of them are clearer. Sometimes it’s because when you’re telling such a multi-layered story, it’s hard to flesh out all of the other parts of the story. You’re not quite sure what Bennett and his father’s issues are. That to me became less important as you watched the film and more just an interesting piece of the thing. I thought what Stephen did with fathers and sons and showing just these relationships, flawed or not, along the way, helped land all the questions and answers that these guys are going through with much more weight. Bennett has to come back and look at his dad in the eye, after doing some of the things he has done. And I’m failing at both my job and my son. Because I’m not doing either one of them well. And Matt’s character had done everything right. Everything would have been fine had nothing bad happened. But something bad happened along the way. And I think the two boys and the one father, the Pakistani boys, is a really interesting storyline too.

    Q: Do you own a hybrid?

    GEORGE CLOONEY: I have an electric car that goes zero to 60 in four seconds. It’s faster than the Porsche Turbo, which is fun. It will go 150 miles before a charge. Quite honestly, I certainly had to make those considerations. I’ve always ridden a motorcycle almost everywhere. It wasn’t about gas; it was because I liked riding motorcycles, but they don’t use a lot of gas. I figured, I can’t do a film about oil corruption and consumption and drive a Bronco – seems a little ridiculous. So I’m learning, and I’m evolving along the way in terms of my own personal responsibility towards fuel because of that. I think if you’re going to get out there and say, ‘let’s talk about these things,’ you’re going to have to participate in all of them. I think you guys know me well enough now; I’m not out there preaching what you should do. I’m just saying, these are questions that should be asked, and along the way, I should probably follow some of my own questions.

    Q: Can you comment on being made one of Peoples’ Most Sexiest Men Alive?

    GEORGE CLOONEY: I was a little hurt that pretty boy McConaughey now takes over. It’s a big responsibility; it’s a heavy crown for him, Mr. Abs himself. But I think he can handle it. I think he could take it. We’ll see. Pitt did it twice. And he was really the only guy that could handle it two times. Brad “Pretty Boy” Pitt. I was a little disturbed that Matt Damon didn’t get front page. And I think you guys will talk to him later, and ask him if he was at all hurt by that because he campaigned a really good campaign. And we thought for sure he was going to pull it off this year.

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