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Warner Home Video presents
Syriana HD-DVD (2005)

Bob Barnes: I want you to take him from his hotel, drug him, put him in the front of a car, and run a truck into him at 50 miles an hour.
Mussawi: It's good to have you back in town, Bob.

- George Clooney, Mark Strong

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: July 10, 2006

Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright
Other Stars: Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Mazhar Munir, Tim Blake Nelson, Amanda Peet, Christopher Plummer, Alexander Siddig
Director: Stephen Gaghan

MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Run Time: 02h:08m:00s
Release Date: June 20, 2006
UPC: 012569807921
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-A-A- B

DVD Review

In Traffic (2000), writer Stephen Gaghan took an unflinching look at the drug trade, using multiple storylines to propel his tale along. This successor, which features Gaghan at the helm as director as well as the screenwriter, takes an even harder look at a worse problem: the ruinous effects of America's addiction to oil and the catastrophes it wreaks on both a human and international scale. As such, it makes a good counterpoint for Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, tackling the human side of the issue.

Four separate storylines develop and occasionally intersect, directly or only tangentially, over the 128-minute running time. Foremost among these is the tale of Bob Barnes (George Clooney, who also was a producer), an undercover CIA agent specializing in the Middle East and tasked with arranging various types of wetwork on behalf of the government, acting as the agent for the oil companies. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an energy analyst who finds himself with access to the royal family of an oil-rich emirate as a result of his young son dying accidentally in the emir's pool at a party. Bryan finds himself in the middle of a struggle between two brothers, Meshal (Akbar Kurtha) and Nasir (Alexander Siddig) to succeed their ailing father (Nadim Sawalha).

The third story follows the work of attorney Bennett Holliday (Jeffrey Wright), tasked with finding some sacrificial victims to toss to the U.S. Attorney in exchange for permitting a merger of a giant oil company, Connex, with a smaller company, Killen, which has managed to finagle the rights to Kazakhstan's oil through various bribes spread around by oilman Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper). Finally, there is the story of Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir) and his brother, two laborers laid off as a result of the merger. Drifting and jobless, they fall under the influence of a fundamentalist cleric and the film tracks their evolution from young men having a good time into terrorist martyrs.

Although the various threads have a certain cohesion to them, Gaghan doesn't oversimplify the picture by having them come together into one grand finale. They bump across each other almost incidentally at times; in one shot, Damon and Clooney share an elevator, but never trade a word and really don't even notice each other. Wright's story never directly intersects with the other three, but it has an indirect impact, sending waves through all of the others in one way or another. It's a subtle and thoughtful approach that belies the "thriller" tag that Warner slaps on the keepcase. It's not a neat and tidy package, and it certainly doesn't offer a gratifying release at the end. Everyone is either tainted or dead, rewriting the biblical admonition to be "love of oil is the root of all evil."

The closest one comes to a hero or positive influence is Nasir, who seeks to reach an accommodation with the Chinese in order to derive funds needed to create an infrastructure for his people. That, of course, makes him a marked man, with Barnes, among others, commissioned to take him out of the picture and make more Connex-friendly Meshal the only heir to the throne. Damon's character has some inspirational moments, but at his heart he's a man who is profiting at the expense of his six-year-old son's life. His wife (Amanda Peet) chastises him harshly for this, but she also keeps reaping the benefit of his actions herself. One would expect Clooney to be the natural hero, but he's hardly that here, playing very strongly against type. Even though he's doing what he thinks best for America, his murderous activities are so noxious and cavalier that when he's captured and brutally tortured (in ghastly and excruciating onscreen detail) one can't muster up much sympathy for him.

The picture is really a story without a hero, and it doesn't offer any way out of the conundrum of corruption brought by the oil industry. Government is operating at the oil companies' behest, and the whole thing is driven by the hunger for cheap fuel, making all of us complicit in the villainy onscreen. It's somewhat discomfiting to recognize that the only solution Gaghan has to offer is Wasim's route, taking to terrorism, but even that's almost completely ineffectual. Despite going out in a blaze of what he considers to be glory, he doesn't actually accomplish anything, and the darkness continues to swirl. This is a bleak, thoughtful look at the corrupting influence of oil, but don't come to it expecting any answers.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.40:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 2.40 HD image generally looks excellent. The lighting and design is intentionally desaturated for the most part, especially whenever matters turn legal or bureaucratic, as if all life is drained out of them. The only instance of bright colors comes as Warim and his brother are working at the refinery, decked in blue jumpsuits. There's some occasional modest ringing, but there's plenty of fine detail. Shadow detail is quite good as well, with the black suits being nicely differentiated throughout. There's one shot of a rising airplane seen through venetian blinds that looks just flawless; I expect in standard DVD it's quite a mess of artifacting.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Spanishyes
Dolby Digital
English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: Although there are 5.1 DD+ English and French tracks, the audio is almost entirely center-oriented. It could easily be mistaken for a mono track, but save for two explosions there really isn't a lot of call for deep bass or massive surround activity. It's a film based on talking rather than action, so don't expect anything flashy. Alexandre Desplat's score is heard from time to time in the surrounds, and it has fine range and presence.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 33 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Elite
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: An assortment of featurettes and a documentary form the backbone of the extras provided here. Foremost is a making-of documentary, Weaving Reality into Drama (26m:07s), which focuses on the writing a fictional work based on a nonfiction book (Robert Baer's See No Evil). It also covers the extensive location shooting under difficult conditions, with plenty of behind the scenes material. There's a little puffery, but it's well within reasonable bounds. A pair of featurettes include discussions with Clooney (9m:11s) and Damon (7m:11s) that are interesting. Clooney is a bit more so, since he makes some comparisons to the ensemble nature of E.R., and relates his misadventures in speaking Farsi phonetically. The last featurette is Make a Change, Make a Difference, which tries to tie the message of the film together, but its conclusions are invalidated by starting from a very peculiar position: one of the producers asserts that there are no bad guys in the film, but I'd say that nearly everyone is a bad guy. The oil executives in particular, especially those played by Chris Cooper and Tim Blake Nelson, are blatant sociopaths, Clooney's character murders for hire, and Wasim ends up a murderer and suicide bomber. If these aren't bad guys, it's hard to see where the producers' moral center lies.

A trailer is accompanied by three deleted scenes, all of which focus on Clooney's character. Two develop the relationship with his estranged wife more fully, while the other involves some poorly-written exposition about the nature of intel. The former could have been included without much difficulty, but the latter is best left on the cutting room floor.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Syriana is a grim but important look at what the oil industry wreaks on the souls of everyone it touches—they don't make geopolitical dramas like this much any more. The transfer is stylized but first-rate, and the extras contribute some valuable background information.


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