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Movie Review

An old adage asserts, "Money makes the world go round." Syriana adds to that with the convincing claim that oil accelerates the spin.

In an unnamed, oil-rich Persian Gulf country, a young prince named Nasir Al-Subaai has disrupted the status quo by granting new natural gas drilling rights to a Chinese company—instead of the American one, Connex, which had previously held those rights. To make up for lost revenue, Connex seeks to merge with another Texas company, Killen, that has recently (and most probably shadily) acquired drilling rights in Kazakhstan.

When the deal attracts the attention of the United States Justice Department, Connex secures the services of the Washington law firm Sloan Whiting to pave the way for its approval. (Little does Sloan Whiting lawyer Bennett Holiday know what will be required of him to make the deal happen.)

Meanwhile, career CIA field operative Bob Barnes is under pressure to make up for a botched mission in Iran, and he agrees to assassinate Prince Nasir in Lebanon, no questions asked. When that mission also goes disastrously awry, his superiors unjustly make him the scapegoat—but in doing so they unleash the fury of a man suddenly determined to know the truth about what's really going on.

Add in ambitious energy analyst Bryan Woodman who's determined to make his mark helping Nasir, an Egyptian terrorist devoted to recruiting impressionable young Pakistanis working in the oilfields, Nasir's scheming younger brother, and a manipulative U.S. politician. Now you've got a volatile mix of men determined to shape the destiny of Middle Eastern oil production—and a movie that's determinedly pointed in its message but more than a little hard to follow.

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Positive Elements

Whereas most films have clear protagonists and antagonists, the mosaic-like story line of Syriana depicts a titanic, yet mostly unseen, struggle to control the most precious resource on our planet. Those who supply the world's oil are prosperous and powerful, while those without it are in peril of being exploited. The moral easily found in this brutally realistic movie is summed up with this: Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Almost all of the characters have major flaws, but several exhibit positive traits as well. When the CIA betrays him, Bob doesn't accept being hung out to dry and is determined to challenge the Agency's unjust actions. Bryan is a workaholic, but he also labors at being a good dad. Prince Nasir envisions revolutionary changes for his country, including a democratic parliament and increased freedom for women.

Spiritual Content

A Pakistani youth's disillusionment after being laid off from a Connex plant makes him easy picking for a terrorist-minded Egyptian Muslim, who's planning more attacks. In the Egyptian's school, young Wasim is taught a radical version of Islam—including conversations about God's will—that completely rejects Western ideas about democracy and commerce. The leader also emphasizes the importance of sexual abstinence before marriage, calling fornication a great sin, and praising virginity. Ironically, the most "moral" people in the film are arguable these young Muslim terrorists in training.

Sexual Content

An Iranian woman is shown putting on her pants.

Violent Content

The film's heavy dialogue is violently interrupted when Bob is searched, gagged, hooded, sealed in a body bag and then, after being taped to a chair, has two of his fingernails ripped from his hand. Adding injury to injury, he's beaten and left unconscious on the bloody floor.

Pakistani workers are beaten with clubs by their Arab employer. A young boy is accidentally electrocuted in a swimming pool. A missile hits a convoy of SUVs and kills most of its occupants. (Bodies are visible around the impact crater.) It's implied that a young man destroys an oil tanker in a suicide bombing. (The screen goes white when the blast is triggered.) Bob blows up a car (with people inside).

Crude or Profane Language

The characters in Syriana use the f-word most frequently (there are at least 20 instances), but also use the s-word (close to a half-dozen times), take Christ's name in vain a handful of times and say "g--d--n" three times. About 10 other milder profanities are spoken and/or seen in subtitles.

Drug and Alcohol Content

At least half-a-dozen scenes depict characters drinking hard liquor, beer or wine and smoking cigarettes. Several times Bennett asks his father, an alcoholic, to stop drinking and smoking. A drunken man is shown passed out at a bar table.

Other Negative Elements

The corruption of businessmen and government officials (both U.S. and foreign) results in a veritable mountain range of lies, deception and betrayal. A Justice Department official leans hard on Bennett to provide names of two Killen employees who broke the law; but it's clear that these people are only intended as "sacrificial lambs" to make it look as though the government is doing its job.

Conclusion

Syriana offers a bleak yet eye-opening look (albeit from one director's perspective) at how countries and corporations are determined to protect their oil interests. At its core, it is a scathing indictment of how oil and the money and influence it generates corrupts everyone who seeks to control it. Almost every character experiences erosion of his integrity at some point—even those who are trying, on some level, to do the right thing.

So it's a profoundly pessimistic moral picture that's painted onscreen, as it suggests that much of what we depend upon in government and business isn't just eaten away at the edges, it's thoroughly rotten. That tone is encapsulated in the response Killen oilman Danny Dalton gives Bennett after being accused of corruption. Danny vents, "Corruption charges? Corruption? Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. ... We have laws precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win."

Like other recent films that implicate government and business in ruthless, unethical and illegal behavior (The Constant Gardner, Lord of War), Syriana will cause those who see it to ask, "Is it really that bad?" I can't answer that question. But I can tell you it's a question worth wrestling with—though I'm not sure any of us need to see a film as violently despairing as Syriana in order to begin grappling with it.

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