Film & TV

Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: ‘Syriana’: Rookie Director Stephen Gaghan’s Spellbinding Conspiracy Thriller

BY Michael Clark TIMEMay 12, 2022 PRINT

R | 2h 8min | DramaMystery, Thriller | 23 November 2005 (USA)

For the movie “Traffic,” Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan took what is easily one of the most controversial and divisive of global issues (illegal drugs) and did the near impossible. He wrote a film where no one was innocent, everyone got their hands dirty, and the good guys were just as, if not more, dangerous than the bad guys.

Gaghan never took a moral or ethical stance on his subject, and he created a plethora of diverse characters who presented their own wide range of differing viewpoints and opinions.

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George Clooney as Bob Barnes in “Syriana.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

In the end he had them asking, what’s the real problem: drugs themselves, people who sell them, people who use them, or the assorted governments so ineptly trying to police them? He never got an answer.

Switch Out Drugs With Oil

In his brilliant, incendiary follow-up to “Traffic,” Gaghan more or less employs the same method of multi-level storytelling and directs his ire at the global oil industry. Unlike illegal drugs, petroleum-based energy products affect every person in the industrialized world, and many who are not.

At this point we have little choice; we have to use them, as most alternatives are cost prohibitive. Like drug users, oil consumers are at the whim of their producers and sellers and, as Gaghan makes so abundantly clear throughout, the governments who regulate the industry.

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(L–R) Matt Damon, George Clooney, Alexander Siddig, and Mazhir Munir in “Syriana.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

If you need further proof, calculate how much money it took to fill your gas tank last week.

Taking his cue from “Traffic” helmer Steven Soderbergh, first time director Gaghan presents the story in non-linear, quasi-documentary form, but don’t get the idea the movie is staid or lacking punch.

There is enough material here to fill five movies and it would appear as if Gaghan had drained his creative juices on this project, as the only two movies he’s made since then—”Gold” from 2016 and “Doolittle” from 2020—were both complete creative and critical disasters.

The story is based on the 2002 memoir “See No Evil” by former C.I.A. agent Robert Baer. While not referenced too directly, there is a character based on Baer (Bob Barnes), played by George Clooney who gives, what is without a doubt, the finest performance of his career.

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George Clooney as Bob Barnes (L) and William Hurt as Stan in “Syriana.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

When the dust settled at the end of the 2005 awards season, Clooney had won the Oscar, the Golden Globe, and numerous critics’ association awards in the Best Supporting Actor category.

I named him my top choice in that category in my year-end list and the film itself landed at number one.

An interesting tidbit: Harrison Ford turned down the Barnes role as well as the pivotal part in “Traffic” eventually played by Michael Douglas, a decision Ford later said he regretted.

Beefy Clooney

Packing on nearly 50 pounds and going Grizzly Adams scruffy, Clooney plays Barnes as a man who always tries to do the right thing, but doesn’t quite realize “right” means different things to different people.

On any given day, he deals with bureaucrats, terrorists, number-crunchers, business tycoons, organized (and disorganized) crime, lobbyists, royalty, and his own slowly disintegrating family. Getting pulled in every direction at once, it’s a wonder he hasn’t already put a gun to his own head.

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Matt Damon as Bryan Woodman and Amanda Peet as Julie Woodman in “Syriana.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Barnes provides the springboard from which all of the sub-plots launch, but Clooney’s is not what you could call a lead role. Time is divided equally between him and four other principals. Poker-faced Jeffrey Wright plays a D.C. lawyer attempting to arrange the merger of two domestic oil companies without selling his own soul in the process.

Matt Damon is a nice fit as a Swedish-based U.S. futures expert whose desire to improve his family’s lot has the exact opposite effect. While Clooney, Wright, and Damon provide the “us” perspective, Mazhir Munir as a burgeoning Muslim fundamentalist and Alexander Siddig as an Arab prince sharing Barnes’s well-intended mind-set give us the “them” slant.

By bringing to life so many richly-drawn, well-developed and, most importantly, morally ambiguous characters to the screen, Gaghan is able to take them and us into places and situations we could never have imagined, most of which we’ll forever want to avoid.

Selective Editing After the Fact

So volatile was the content of the film (in some people’s eyes, at least), nebulous authorities in some Middle Eastern countries censored parts of the film before allowing it to screen in theaters. It was also somewhat odd that the only Oscar nominations for the film were only for Clooney and Gaghan for Best Screenplay.

Not only was the movie not nominated for an Oscar for Best Director or Picture, it also received the same cold shoulder from the British Academy (BAFTA) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association: the folks who hand out the Golden Globes. This happened in the same year when “Crash,” one of the most overrated movies of all-time, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Stay Mum

A bunch of people in high places apparently didn’t want this movie to receive the attention or accolades it so richly deserved, and it smacks of the close-but-not-quite-the-same treatment levied upon “Citizen Kane” in 1941.

This movie is certainly not for all, or even most tastes. If you prefer something light, breezy, and uncomplicated, don’t even waste your time. Seriously, it will give you a headache. The film gets up in your face and under your skin immediately and grows only more confrontational and damning as it progresses.

It wants to pin your ears back, pry your eyes open, and slap your consciousness about in a way no movie has ever attempted and, on that front, it more than succeeded.

Presented in English and multiple subtitled foreign languages.

Director: Stephen Gaghan
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Peet, William Hurt
Running Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Nov. 23, 2005
Rating: 5 out of 5

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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