Sunday, December 11, 2005

Syriana: An all too familiar story of political intrigue over Middle Eastern oil

By Kash Kheirkhah

Syriana, Hollywood's latest political thriller which has dominated movie headlines since its limited release in November, was finally opened to public this weekend. Was it worth the wait? Before answering that question, let's get down to the nitty gritty of the movie.

First off, there are still so many questions as to what "Syriana" means . Well, according to news sources such as the Washington Post, Syriana is a Washington think-tanky term to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East. As for the plot of the movie, it centers around the following characters and storylines:

Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a covert CIA operative and an expert in the Middle Eastern affairs who can speak perfect Farsi and Arabic. He completes his mission in Iran (which seemingly is gathering intelligence on the prospects of change in Iran's political system and the struggle between the reformers and hardliners) and returns to Washington.

Connex, a major US oil company in Texas, which loses a huge oil contract to the Chinese in the Persian Gulf. In the meantime, a smaller American oil company surprisingly secures a very lucrative deal to tap into the untouched oil fields of Kazakhstan. Connex decides to merge with the minor league oil company to maintain its presence in the region's oil fields but first decides to launch its own investigation into whether the company bribed Kazakh officials to win the deal; a violation of the US Corrupt practices act that could trigger a Justice Department investigation and eventually block the merger. To avoid such a scenario, Connex hires a Washington-based attorney to conduct a separate investigation, before the Justice Department digs up any dirt.

A young Pakistani oil worker who's laid off as a result of the merger and faces deportation. To both learn Arabic and avoid being deported, he enrolls in a madras and then is recruited by a radical Muslim terrorist organization.

An Arab king and his two sons, Prince Nasir--a visionary and reformer who wishes to establish democracy in his country through parliamentary elections and give women the right to vote--and his less-qualified, more pro-American younger brother.

Energy expert and financial consultant, Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) in Geneva who later becomes Prince Nasir's financial advisor.

These characters and storylines all run parallel to eachother and naturally converge as we progress toward the end of the movie, although I'm not gonna reveal the end in case you haven't seen the movie yet.

Syriana is a fine movie but it still leaves a lot to be desired. One reason could be that the movie involves a lot of plots none of which get enough screen time to develop as well as they should in such a complicated story. For example:

How is Iran weaved into the main plot of the story? Except for the opening of the movie which shows Barnes at a party in Tehran, the other references to Iran seemed redundant and unrelated to the main plots. Barnes is said to speak Farsi (Persian) fluently but Clooney doesn't even speak a word (He is shown speaking Arabic in Lebanon though).

The timeline of the movie is yet another puzzle I couldn't finally figure out. The CIA officer does refer to 9/11 whereas we see Bill Clinton photo as the President of the United States. The Bush administration put Iran on its axis of evil nations list soon after 9/11, thus abandoning any hopes of a possible breakthrough from within the Iranian regime. In the movie, the Committee for Liberating Iran is still counting on Khatami and the reformers to wrestle the power out of the hands of the conservative Ayatollahs and lead Iran toward a secular democracy.

And as for the Arab king and his two sons, the movie is obviously referring to Saudi Arabia in a very superficial way. The politics of Saudi Arabia's royal court are much more complicated to be only limited to an ailing king and his two princes vacationing in Europe.

Finally, the movie takes an indirect jab at the Bush administration, questioning the sincerity of its Greater Middle East Initiative which makes me ask the following questions:

One: If unemployment and radical education are two main elements in turning young, innocent Muslims to anti-western terrorists as the movie rightly claims, why should GMI whose some of its provisions are specifically aimed at building a knowledge society and expanding economic opportunities in the Middle East as against the status quo be frowned upon?

Two: Would the US oil corporation politics, underhanded oil dealings and US involvement in other governments be any different under any other administration?

So was "Syriana" worth the wait? I'd say to some extent yes, but I'd also say the movie tries to handle too much of the convoluted Middle Eastern politics in too little time. In doing so, it only scratches the surface, leaving us bereft of some intricate twists highly expected in thrillers of this kind. In that respect, "Syriana" is a let-down.