Syriana

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Syriana, directed by Steven Gaghan, executive producer Steven Soderbergh

Jenny Haines

This is not an easy movie to review, but it is a very timely exposure of the US oil industry and the energy crisis facing capitalism. Made by George Clooney as one member of a team of executive producers, and directed by Steven Gaghan  Syriana is made in the same style as the much acclaimed and awarded Traffic, the excellent expose of the American drug trade and its winners and losers.

Stephen Gaghan, who wrote Traffic, wrote the script for Syriana. He builds the storyline from short clips, building to a dramatic conclusion with a nasty twist. I find that this method of filmaking leaves one walking out of the cinema stunned by the intensity of the experience, and haunted for days by the stories of the participants.

Syriana lays bare the desperate world the US is entering as its scavenges the Middle East and Eastern Europe for oil to maintain US industry and power against the emerging economies of China and India. US oil company executives will do anything to maintain US hegemony — straight, not so straight or downright corrupt.

The film revolves around the merger of two giant US oil companies, which makes the merged company fourth largest “nation” in the world. A tame government investigator, who is black, is commissioned to investigate the corrupt elements of this merger.

One very interesting vignette is a US oil representative arguing with this government investigator about corruption. Corruption he argues, is what greases the system. Without it, the US oil industry could not function or maintain its competitive position against Chinese competitors.

The US oil men consider themselves the winners in the oil industry, and they have of course their trusty mates in the intelligence services to look after them if things go wrong.   But what of the people of the Middle East?

The film examines all layers of society in the Middle East: the emirs and their wealthy  lifestyle of luxury cars, houses and aeroplanes, but all of this is only maintained these days by permission of the imperial power, the US. The workers in the oil refineries are mainly guest workers, Pakistanis, brought in to do the hard labour.

Their reward when a refinery is taken over by a Chinese operation (much to chagrin of the Americans) is instant dismissal. There is no mention of unions or worker’s rights.

The workers meekly accept their fate and line up for government payouts. Any sideways glance at the military while waiting for meagre government assistance earns a beating from the guards. These workers live in squalid foreign workers’ compounds, with little to do other than their work.

The dissaffected children of these workers drift into Islamic schools, where as well as being taught the basics of reading and writing, they are fed a diet of hatred against the West. The West has failed, they are told, martyrdom will be the highest achievement of their lives.

George Clooney, as well as being an executive producer, is an actor in this film. He plays the part of CIA agent George Barnes, an agent haunted by his experiences in Beirut in the 1980s. Clooney’s character is commissioned to assassinate the emir the US blames for the loss of the refinery to the Chinese.

His mission fails but he returns to the US to suss out more of what is really happening behind the scenes, and is horrified. Clooney’s character is reminiscent of Robert Redford’s in Three Days of the Condor, that excellent 1970s film about a rogue CIA agent. Syriana  revives that genre of movies of the 1970s and 1980s about rogue intelligence agents fighting corruption and loss of direction by their agencies.

Another US operator on the scene is a character called Bryan Woodman, played by Matt Damon, an energy shares trader who uses a family tragedy to worm his way into advising the emir on finance and economics. But he is really a babe in the woods in this vicious world, and he gets his fingers badly burnt.

With Nigerian oil workers now declaring total war on foreign oil interests, Syriana is a very timely examination of the contradictions of the oil industry and imperial promises self goverment and democracy. It is a film that addresses the critical issues that face capitalism now and in the near future. It challenges socialists to come up with answers.

Syriana has been nominated for two Academy Awards, including best supporting actor for George Clooney. It won a Golden Globe Award for George Clooney as best supporting actor and has been nominated for a BAFTA award also for Clooney as best supporting actor.

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