Making the Grades
A few years ago, the screenwriter of Syriana, Stephen Gaghan, was lauded with an Oscar for his Traffic script. An intense movie (also R-rated) about the illegal drug trade, it was a masterful work that began with multiple story threads all coming together in a pounding finale. This time Gaghan takes on the politically charged oil industry, employing the same approach, but with less admirable results.
Explaining the plot synopsis in detail would take paragraphs, so put it in its simplest terms, the story follows five people. Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a covert CIA agent with deep connections in the Middle East. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an influential petroleum expert frequently called upon for television commentary. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is looking into the motivation behind a monster merger between a massive oil company and a much smaller one. A Saudi prince (Alexander Siddig) wants to see more of the money his country earns staying within its boarders for developing infrastructure, while his competing younger brother simply wants to keep the US happy. Finally, an unskilled Arab man (who is now unemployed because of the aforementioned merger) becomes involved in a radical terrorist organization.
With ingredients like these, an explosive outcome is hardly a surprise. Possessing a definite cynical tone, Syriana skips around the globe exploring the politics and motivations behind the doors of energy empires. Whatever you do, don't come to this film expecting to park your brains under your seat. In fact, I'd recommend an early evening or matinee showing, because one blink will leave you wondering what you missed.
Obviously, this R-rated film isn't anything near kiddy-fare. However, its coverage of a timely topic and the potential discussion points it develops may have some parents and teachers considering it for teen viewing. Before pressing play, be advised there are some disturbing scenes--the worst being a man who is tortured, a boy who is accidentally electrocuted, and a young man on a suicide mission. Profanities include several sexual expletives.
Artistically, Syriana doesn't provide the same sense of cheating space and time that Traffic accomplished. Instead of a "wow" finish, you leave feeling like you've missed something in the convoluted outcome. Given the chance to pause, rewind, and review some of the pivotal moments a second time, I might have been more able to appreciate the efforts and messages in this film. Assuming many others may feel the same way, I'm certain this movie will do better with its DVD release.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Syriana.
Older teens viewing this film are advised to do so with parents (or teachers) who can discuss the topics presented. Discuss whether or not the movie presents an overall bias for or against the oil companies, Arabs, and Americans. Ask viewers if watching the movie makes them feel like they have little or no control over this situation, then consider ways in which individuals could influence the energy industry—by altering our consumption habits for instance.