Some thoughts on <i>Syriana</i>

I recently saw Syriana, which is going to be in theaters "everywhere" starting on Friday. This will not be a comprehensive movie review, just a few thoughts about the film. I should say that the opinions here do not reflect the official views of The Oil Drum, only my personal thoughts.

This is a great looking, well-acted, big budget Hollywood production with some of the biggest movie stars around. It was directed by Steven Gaghan (who wrote the screenplay for Traffic) and written by Gaghan and Robert Baer, a former CIA agent. Some of the movie is based loosely on Baer's non-fiction book See No Evil. If you come to this movie expecting an engaging politicial thriller, you will enjoy yourself. If you are expecting this movie to change the way everyday people think about the impact of oil on our lives, you will be disappointed.

Syriana examines our dependence on foreign oil from several interwoven perspectives, much like Traffic explored the U.S. "War on Drugs". The interconnected storylines feature an over-the-hill CIA agent (George Clooney), an ambitious and opportunistic energy analyst (Matt Damon), a lawyer for large U.S. oil company (Jeffrey Wright), a reform-minded Arabian prince (Alexander Siddig), and two Pakistani men who are laid off from their jobs in an Arabian oil field. If you think this plot sounds complicated, you are right. The plot of Traffic was similarly complex, but made excellent use of cinematographic effects to delinate the different storylines. Syriana does not use such techniques, and the result is a movie that is hard to follow. It strikes me as the kind of movie that is more enjoyable after a second viewing, but having only seen it once, I cannot say for sure.

Spoilers below the fold.

If you want to know the details of the plot, I suggest you see the movie or read another review. I will skip right to the take-home "messages" of the movie:
  • Big Oil is hungry for profits and will engage in corrupt practices to secure them.
  • The U.S. Government will make a show of reining Big Oil, but in the end they are complicit in corrupt practices, and in some instances will act as the military arm of Big Oil.
  • The U.S. Government's rhetoric about spreading democracy and opening up free markets is empty. The U.S. will take actions against these ideals if it secures access to oil for the U.S.
This a fictional movie, so it cannot be seen as a reliable depiction of anything that happens in the real world. It can only be taken for commentary and a starting point for discussion. This commentary is unlikely to change the views of people who already have opinions on these issues. If you think Big Oil and the Bush Adminstration are evil, this movie will reinforce those beliefs. If you think Big Oil is being scapegoated or that Hollywood liberals hate America, then this movie is evidence of that. Fine.

The big question is whether this movie will affect the way uninformed or non-ideological people think. I don't think it will. To them, this is just another spy thriller, albeit one that is hard to follow (just as The Day After Tomorrow was just another disaster movie, not a starting point for a discussion of global warming).

A film like this presents an opportunity to reach out to people who do not follow current events. It can be an effective medium for changing the way they think or live their lives, but only if the film can concretely link the viewer's actions to the "big picture". This movie did not attempt to make such a connection. That job has been safely off-loaded to a website set up by the production company. The website is better than nothing, but I don't think it will be nearly as effective as if the film itself had been more provocative. By itself, the movie leaves the viewer with a sense of hopelessness—Big Oil and the Government are going to do what they're going to do, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Finally, this movie does not address the concept of peak oil or oil depletion in any direct matter. Beyond comments like "Ninety percent of the world's remaining oil is in the Middle East," you will not hear any acknowledgement of oil depletion. Nor will you see the impact of the scarcity of oil on everyday people. Still the movie makes a decent enough starting point for a discussion about peak oil with your family and friends. Just don't expect it to get them thinking about peak oil on their own.

Previous discussion of Syriana here and here.

P.S. In case you're wondering, the title is not explained anywhere in the movie. Here's an explanation.

As to the film’s title, Gaghan says that while "Syriana" is "a very real term used by Washington think tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East," its use here is more generic, pointing to "the fallacious dream that you can successfully remake nation-states in your own image."
Thanks for writing the review Super G - I just saw the movie last night and I really came away feeling more helpless than ever before - kind of like Clooney waving the white sheet from the car...

A few other points that I'd like to make:

  • The LNG angle was not fully explained - my companion did not understand that part at all. I really wish they had shown more on that.
  • Like the movie Traffic, it protrays a system that is deeply flawed that cannot be corrected by well meaning individuals - those who fight the system get chewed up and spit out - like Clooney.
  • They never blamed the end user of the oil, which I think was a mistake. The best parts of Traffic were linking the end user to all the negative impacts of the system. They also offer nothing on Alternative energy or any other way out of the current paradigm.
  • The Matt Damon character to me represented the ideal of true unfettered global trade, which in reality is a farce for oil and other strategic resources since military/security/control interests will always come first. Democracy is not a priority compared to security and trade...

The final thought that I had at the end of the movie was that we are already about waist deep in quicksand in Middle East politics on purely based on oil issues (Israel was never mentioned in the movie that recall). The more we struggle to get access to oil, the more we are drawn into petty local battles that only makes us a greater target for terrorists and ever more dependent on cheap oil from the region.
While blaming the end user of oil is warranted, it is financially risky. If people walk out of movie thinking all of the world's problems are their own fault, they are not likely to tell their friends to see the movie.
I seems, on the face, noble to blame the "end users". This system is set up, whether you accept it or not, so that a select few of "intellectual elites" determine the best course of action for the "people".  The men with this sort of knowledge, Rockefellers Club of Rome for example, could have molded society on conservation and awareness instead of gluttony and consumerism (special interest maximum profit).  The mass of people do what they are told, whether or not you can accept it, it is the truth.  The great mass of society has been brought to the cliff of civilization for the greedy wants of profit.  Consume Consume Consume, if you don't, you not part of the herd.  While this group of intellectuals might scoff at this, it is never the less the reality of the situation.  What a sad display of the human condition...


The basic premise sort of stands in stark contrast to this TOD post from several weeks ago:

"These multi-national oil companies are a whole herd of deer grazing on a bounty of spilled corn in Interstate 10 outside of Houston at 5:00 AM."



i didn't realize there were official views of The Oil Drum.  sounds like you guys need to incorporate.  
In retrospect, it does seem like a silly thing to say. I guess I just wanted to emphasize that the other contributors were likely to have opinions about it, and I didn't want to give the impression that this is going to be the definitive posting about the movie. It is possible there will be more posts about it in the future.
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes." - Walt Whitman

The Oil Drum is vast. The Oil Drum contains multitudes.

The editors have been known to engage in vigorous public debates with one another in the past. A healthy thing, I think.

Probably the About Us page is the only official doctrine of The Oil Drum.

peakguy, I think that quotes gotta go in the bin in the corner, man. I can't wait to see this movie...
What's not to like? Although I must admit that it is sadly one of the few quotes I remember from my literature classes...I thought it was a good metphor of TOD's respectin' diversity and all...

I can't wait to see this movie...

I think I might need to see it again to pick up on all the little things.

I can understand why you do not want to push people outside of their "official comfort zone".  The "official comfort zone" is warm and cozy, "we are so intelligent, and there is still hope"...


Now that it's playing everywhere,
here is my "step back" take on the movie.

It's not about LNG or oil, it's about brain washing. It's about giving into the dark side and about redemption of sorts for those who have not gone too far over to the other side.

Damon's character is the only one who gets redeemed in the "this life" part of the movie. In the end Damon abandons his quest for money, glory & power by returning to his wife and remaining child.

Clooney, of course, is redeemed by his white flagged fatal attempt to save the good prince from death --if you want to call being blown up after losing your fingernails a redemption. Clooney finally realizes he was nothing more than a brain-washed and expendable "foot soldier" for those who manipulate things from the upper echelons.

Damon complains: I did everything right. I did everything the way I was taught.

Of course our unemployed Pakistani friend also does everything according to the way he was taught. You can almost understand why he thinks he is doing good for his family and his newly adopted religion as he blows that LNG tanker to kingdom come.

I went with family member who knows nothing about PO. They found it boring and confusing. Too much "technical" stuff that went over the top. The uninitiated have no idea what LNG is.

According to the Director, an important take away should be that we need to cut our dependence on foreign oil for security reasons.  From the reviews, perhaps he did not make that point well enough.  

But doesn't the movie give us a strong glimpse of the consequences of dependency?  Oil corrupts our politics at all levels and is causing a massive misallocation of resources that could be better used to combat problems like global poverty and global warming.   And who is really in charge of our foreign policy?  To a great extent, it seems to be the power lawyers on K street and the oil companies they serve.

Can one imagine a world of so much intrigue and corruption if our main energy sources were wind, solar, and biomass?  

Can one imagine a world of so much intrigue and corruption if our main energy sources were wind, solar, and biomass?

Good point. Both the benefit and bane of wind and solar are that they are distibuted energy sources rather than concentrated ones. To harness these energy sources we need many farms distributed everywhere.

Concentration of power, one might say, corrupts proportionally to energy density.

Aside from the H-bomb, oil is pretty much the most concentrated form of power we have at our disposal in these past 150 years (1850-2000).

Biomass is not a long term answer because it releases CO2 and consumes scarce farmland away from growth of food for our exponentially exploding populations.

Distributed solar will do to the energy business what the Internet did to concentrated network media.