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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Syriana" (2005)

When it comes to oil, I’m kinda dumb. Well, not so dumb that I can’t fry an egg with it or cook a mean Snausage burger, but when it comes to oil for my car, I’m just dirt stupid. I don’t know what to do. It’s especially sad when I take my car in for an oil change and the mechanic screams, “Sir, would you like 10WD40-1020EZ with Fiberoptical Flapjacks!?!!?” And I just look at the plastic pint in his hand and the assured expression on his face and nod in agreement, “Yes, that would be lovely,” probably not knowing that I probably just agreed to let him clog my fuel injector with horse manure and gummi bears.

Now, along comes Stephen Gaghan’s political thriller “Syriana” to remind me of just how dumb I am. I think I was with the movie for about 20 minutes. Then I started to scratch my head a little. Then I was back with it. Then it lost me. Then I tried really hard to concentrate on just what the ding-dang heck everyone was talking about and how the characters related to each other. Then I realized that in order to fully comprehend it all, I would have to backtrack to the scenes where I got lost and try to decode them. After a while, I sort of gave up and ate my gummi bears.

Gaghan’s movie tells the story about the global oil industry. I know, I’m lost too, but I’ll try to convey this as best as the press release from which I’m borrowing storyline notes will let me. George Clooney plays a CIA operative who gets chased around, tortured and thrown into conspiracies beyond his control. Matt Damon plays an oil broker whose son has just died, but who ends up partnering with a Gulf prince. Meanwhile, a corporate lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) questions a merger between two oil companies, while in Pakistan, a teenager falls prey to an influential cleric who recruits men into taking on a deadly crusade against the oil companies.

That’s the simplest I can make it for you (thank God for presskits!). Gaghan clearly wants to do for the oil industry what his similarly patterned screenplay for “Traffic” did for drug dealing. Unfortunately, Gaghan seems to think you already know the basics of oil trading (sorry, I’m dumb) and that you won’t mind if he talks a little over your head for a bit. To smooth out the narrative in case you don’t get the gist of what makes oil trading so awful, he books Tim Blake Nelson to give an out-of-nowhere speech that bears a striking resemblance to Michael Douglas’ “Greed” speech in “Wall Street,” only instead using the word “corruption.”

I know “Syriana” means to be important and I know I should care about the fact that corporations get too greedy, the CIA won’t own up to their mistakes and that millions die so we can get cheap oil. Heck, for all I know, “Syriana” blows the lid off everything and it will become a hot-topic movie amongst billionaires everywhere. Finally, a movie for them! The rest of us will have to sit there and try to feel smart when it’s over by saying things like, “George Clooney sure gained some weight for this role” and “hhmm, that’s interesting” and “it’s sad what we do for oil,” even though we’re secretly hoping no one will ask us why this-that-or-the-other happened.

I’ve decided for myself that it’s okay to feel dumb when watching this movie. I’ve talked to several highly educated and well-versed critics afterwards and they felt dumb too. I know I’m supposed to feel angry and enlightened about something and I know a movie should be made about the corruption and violence that comes with trading oil, but I just walked out feeling lost. If nothing else, I can at least make a statement with what message I did come away with by the film’s end: I will never eat popcorn cooked with canola oil ever again! So many lives lost…

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