I find it amazing when a film is heralded as one of the best of "Insert Year Here" yet it succeeds only in repeating a previous film from the writer. In this case, writer-director Stephen Gaghan ripped himself off by retooling his script for "Traffic" and replaced the international drug trade with the international oil trade. Change the character names and he was good to go.
Overall, "Syriana" isn't a bad film at all, but it is one that I've seen before to the point where I knew the ending about 30 minutes in. For a film proclaimed as deep, heady, and impossible to predict that's pretty sad. I also don't understand why Clooney won an Oscar for his role. He's good, don't get me wrong, but Oscar caliber?
The film takes several branching paths so run with me for a moment. Clooney plays a burned out CIA operative who specializes in Beirut and the Middle East at large. He's conflicted about a missile sale that goes wrong right at the start, and works to regain approval from his bosses to return to the Middle East as soon as possible.
Matt Damon plays an energy analyst based out of Geneva, Switzerland, who trumpets the company line regarding oil futures. He, his wife (played by Amanda Peet), and their two sons live well based on his predictions and he's given an opportunity to sell his firm's services to a reigning Saudi emir. While at the party, a tragic accident strikes their family resulting in Damon working hand-in-hand with the emir's eldest son, played by Alexander Siddig (Yup, Dr. Bashir for you "DS9" fans).
It seems the eldest son is worried about being usurped by his younger brother who has the attention of oil interests lead by Christopher Plummer's character, a grizzled industrialist concerned only with controlling as much of the world's oil supply as possible. Meanwhile, Siddig's character wants to become emir so he can begin to instigate genuine reform in his country, and the region at large.
Naturally, other forces in the CIA and the oil industry, which is holding its breath pending a government greenlight on a merger between two massive companies with control of an untapped field in Asia, wouldn't appreciate the emir's son reforming squat. Meanwhile, two oil workers laid off begin their inexorable drift towards becoming suicide bombers.
Still with me so far?
The short of it is that every step of the oil trade is corrupt and nothing will change unless the oil runs out, or if the men in charge willingly change their practices to allow for the Middle East to implement honest reforms. What are the odds of either happening in our lifetime?
"Syriana" has a lot on its mind and it is a message worth hearing if only for the debate, but it would have been more of a landmark film had it not been little more than a carbon copy of one of the best films of the 90's.