Syriana, the movie written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, was released 15 years ago last week, in November of 2005. The film, a complex, globe-spanning geopolitical thriller featuring an all-star cast, succeeded in some portions of its mission as a prestige picture, while falling short in others.
On the one hand, the film was nominated for two Oscars, winning George Clooney what is to this day his only Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. It made more money than it cost to make, and got mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert named it his #2 film of 2005.
On the other hand, its Rotten Tomatoes score was only 73 percent, and beyond that, Syriana hasn’t had much of an afterlife. It’s not much discussed, thought about, or commemorated much today, and that may be because it was tethered to a very specific political moment that’s long since passed. Gaghan, the director, is better known as a screenwriter, and he hasn’t directed much of consequence in the years since (his last film was the much-maligned Robert Downey, Jr., Dr. Doolittle movie this year).
World events since have made many of its themes newly relevant
That said, the film is better than I remembered, and world events since have made many of its themes newly relevant. Also, it has one of the best casts of the aughts.
Politics of Its Time
Syriana is both released and set in 2005, during both the Iraq War and the Bush/Cheney presidency, although neither really figures much in the plot. The film explores capitalism, oil, terrorism, and the Middle East, coming at them all from different angles.
The film was based on a memoir by CIA veteran Robert Baer, one of those ex-spies who goes on MSNBC whenever there’s a coup, to talk about why the coups he used to run were done so much better. The Baer stand-in, “Bob Barnes,” is played by Clooney as a CIA man trying to stop arms trafficking in the Middle East. Yes, there’s a torture scene, because in movies about the Middle east during that time period, there was always a torture scene.
One of the other storylines has Matt Damon, as an energy analyst, getting roped into the inner circle of a Gulf prince (Alexander Siddig), a character who essentially prefigured the rise of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammad bin-Salman, or rather the image MBS put forward of himself before he proved himself a cutthroat murderer.
There’s also a great deal of intrigue involving a shady merger between two oil companies, being investigated by a Washington lawyer (Jeffrey Wright); all of that business is tied to a neocon organization called “The Committee to Liberate Iran.” And the fourth plot, the one that’s by far the least developed — possibly because it doesn’t have any movie stars in it — a group of young Pakistani Muslims is seduced into terrorism.
The plot gets intriguingly into some “how it all works” explaining, without veering too far into conspiracy-land. Syriana is also one of the better films of the Bush era that dealt with war and the Middle East, as most of those films were terrible.
Full of A-Listers
The other impressive thing is the cast. Clooney and Damon are the A-listers, of course, but the film assembles quite a roster of first-rate character actors: Alexander Siddig, Jeffrey Wright, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Tom McCarthy, Mark Strong, David Clennon, Peter Gerety, Chris Cooper, and Tim Blake Nelson who delivers the film’s “corruption is why we win” speech. It was clearly supposed to recall the “You can’t handle the truth” monologue and didn’t quite get there, but Nelson at least delivered it well.
It may not be anyone’s favorite movie of the decade, but Syriana is very much deserving of another look. It can be streamed on the free streaming service Hoopla.