By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
Daniel Yergin's 1992 best-seller The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil,
Money & Power contains a photograph of a triumphant-looking
man in a well-tailored, western-style suit, hoisted by his admirers
above a large, elated crowd. The caption reads, "Iranian Prime
Minister Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized British Petroleum in 1951,
setting off the first postwar oil crisis and unleashing political forces
that he could not control." By the time the crisis played itself
out, Yergin tells us, the Shah of Iran paid BP's nationalized subsidiary
"about $90 million up front for the 60 percent rights that the
company was said to be giving up," while "Mossadegh was put
on trial by the reinstated Shah -- and spent three years in prison."
In Syriana, energy-analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) likens
the Arab royal, who hires Woodman's consulting firm, to Mossadegh, a
sure signal from Director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) that his Prince
Nasir is in for big trouble. Nasir, heir-apparent to his ailing emir-father,
has cut a deal with the Chinese to buy the emirate's oil, acing out
American energy-giant Connex. From the moment he signs with the Peoples
Republic, Nasir (Alexander Siddig) is a marked man.
The CIA dispatches veteran operative Bob Barnes (George Clooney, whose
Section Eight production company co-produced the film) to dispose of
Nasir, so that Connex can climb back into the saddle. Clooney's character
is very loosely based on the real-life CIA agent and author Bob Baer,
who published his memoir See No Evil in 2002. Syriana
is likewise (very) loosely-based on Baer's varied experiences -- particularly
leading an alleged attempt on the life of Saddam Hussein -- during a
lengthy career that carried him all over the Middle East.
If Director Gaghan's quick-cut, documentary-like style of film-making
turned you out of Traffic (2000), you may have the same trouble
keeping your head in the fast-paced, globe-hopping Syriana story.
But, just as "nothing concentrates the mind better than knowing
that one will be hanged in the morning," nothing could bring the
viewer's attention back into focus better than the film's mid-stream
torture scene. Barnes travels to Beirut, where he hires an assassin
named Mussawi to kill Prince Nasir when he visits the city. "Drug
him, put him in a car, and drive a truck into him at 50 miles an hour,"
Barnes casually instructs his killer. When the "wet-work"
specialist turns on Barnes and takes him captive, you get a graphic
depiction of what it might be like to have your fingernails removed,
one at a time. If this doesn't pull you back into the film, nothing
From then on, this 126-minute whirligig of a movie spins interconnected
plots around and through one another. Washington lawyer Bennett Holiday
(Jeffrey Wright) is charged by his firm's puppeteer managing-partner
(Christopher Plummer) with ferreting out any skeletons in client Connex's
closet that might trip up its merger with a smaller firm holding some
prime Mid-East drilling rights. The Justice Department wants the wedding
consummated in the national interest, but demands the blood of one or
two sacrificial lambs -- be they oil company execs or senior partners
from Holiday's own firm -- to satiate the criminal justice system. Everybody
knows the smaller Killen Corp could never have gotten its oil concessions
without greasing a few Arab palms in violation of U.S. law. The deal
must be cleansed by a (metaphorically-speaking) blood sacrifice; somebody
has to do some hard time.
This political passion-play inevitably and inexorably converges with
a second, very real blood sacrifice, that of Prince Nasir (no metaphors
in the Middle East, it seems). Is the meeting of Nasir's convoy with
a herd of Bedoin goats and sheep on the road where the prince is targeted
for assassination symbolic or coincidental?
Befitting the product of a master film-maker, working with a first-rate
cast, Syriana comes to its climax with no simple twists of fate.
Four distinct story lines -- the Connex/Killen merger; the relentless
CIA effort to erase the reform-bent Nasir from America's Middle Eastern
equation; Agent Bob Barnes's eleventh-hour effort at redemption; and,
the slender compelling thread of the transformation of two Arab oilfield
workers into suicide bombers -- converge to make Syriana a thought-provoking
thriller of a film.
Rated R - For violence and language.