"Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win."
Stephen Gaghan's hot-button oil industry thriller Syriana is a movie designed knowingly to frustrate and upset a large percentage of its potential audience. For one thing, on a strictly narrative level the film's jumpy, non-linear structure is deliberately confusing and borderline impenetrable. Even more importantly, political thrillers of this type haven't been much in vogue since the 1970s, and Gaghan has produced this one at a time of intense polarization in our country. When you make a movie about a sensitive topic like America's energy policy and it stars George Clooney, you're practically asking for hordes of blowhard pundits to decry your film as Left-wing propaganda whether they've seen it or not. To push forward with such a project anyway is either an act of daring vision or foolhardy arrogance, or perhaps a bit of both.
Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, and Tim Blake Nelson among others co-star with the aforementioned Clooney in a picture without any one main character or storyline. Each is featured in separate narrative threads that continually intersect and wrap around one another: Clooney as a CIA agent working the Middle East, Damon as an energy analyst who becomes an advisor to an Arab prince, Cooper as a big-wig oil executive negotiating a merger with one of his competitors, Plummer as a mysterious power player who pulls strings that affect everyone else's lives, etc. Gaghan assembles the pieces in way that intentionally obfuscates their meaning and connection. He jumps in and out of scenes with a bare minimum of information conveyed. There are no transitions or establishing shots. Half the time you aren't even sure what country certain scenes are taking place in, and none of the characters are ever properly introduced. You learn who people are only by the context of what you see them doing, which isn't always clear and in many cases may take until the end of the movie to figure out.
Since none of these individual characters can see the big picture, the intention of the film is that the audience should be left uncertain as well. This isn't to say that the movie doesn't have a coherent plot or storyline. Rather, it's laid out like a puzzle, and the viewer is asked to make some effort into putting the pieces together. Some may take up the challenge, while many others will simply balk indignantly. You'll know which is which depending on whether a person tells you the movie was fascinating or "a boring piece of crap", with (much like our current political situation) little in-between.
A sort of thematic sequel to Gaghan's script for Traffic, Syriana posits the notion that America is addicted to oil, and with supplies controlled by limited interests is getting desperate to maintain a steady fix. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you sit on, an observation like that ought to be pretty self-evident, but some people are determined to get offended by the truth staring them in the face. Contrary to accusations against it, the film does not point a finger of blame at any one political entity. There are no heroes or villains in this story. The entire system is broken. Quite simply, everyone has been corrupted, trapped in circles of influence whose complexity is way beyond their understanding, and those who think they have all the answers are actually just as hopelessly lost and manipulated as the rest of us.
Syriana is a bold, hugely ambitious work that (again like Traffic) asks more complicated and critical questions than it can even try to answer. Less a preachy statement movie than a cry for attention to a topic that needs it, the film will certainly not appeal to all moviegoers but deserved its critical recognition as one of the best pictures of 2005.
The HD DVD:
Syriana debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Syriana HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The HD transfer is clean, sharp, and detailed. You can make out the individual strands of hair in George Clooney's beard. Colors are accurately rendered though mostly subdued (the movie's style isn't meant to be eye-popping). The photography is a little bit grainy here and there, but the grain is well-compressed and never looks noisy. Only in one or two shots of dark objects contrasted against bright desert landscapes did I detect any edge halos, so fleeting and minor only nit-pickers like myself will notice them. This is a fine-looking disc.
The Syriana HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is encoded in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. This is a very restrained, dialogue-driven mix. Even the musical score is kept to a low volume that subtly underlines scenes without overwhelming them. Surround use is limited except for a few aggressive scenes and bass hardly comes into play other than one or two explosions. The overall volume level is set low by default and will be helped by amplification above normal levels. Fidelity seems perfectly fine, but this isn't a showy soundtrack.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - Quebecois French DD+ 5.1 or Spanish 2.0.
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
All of the supplements from the DVD appear to have carried over.
We also get two brand new featurettes and a trailer, all of which seem like they were probably prepared for the DVD but dropped due to disc space issues.
- A Conversation with George Clooney (9 min.) - "Conservative" worrywarts need not act appalled. This short interview with the outspoken actor is not overtly political at all. Instead, Clooney focuses on his career, working in an ensemble cast, the movie's script, his character, and the difficulty of learning to speak Arabic phrases convincingly.
- Make a Change, Make a Difference (11 min.) - More likely to offend those with delicate political sensibilities, this piece is admittedly a little preachy. The intentions behind making the movie are discussed, and viewers are urged to take action in any way they can.
- Deleted Scenes (6 min.) - Three scenes featuring Clooney's character are available, one of his family, one at work in the CIA, and finally one during his time in the hospital. Disappointingly, brief glimpses of other cut scenes are found in the featurettes but not provided in their entirety.
No interactive features have been included.
- A Conversation with Matt Damon (7 min.) - While Clooney steers clear of politics in his interview, Damon gets a little defensive about charges that the movie is "Leftist". He makes comparisons to political thrillers of the 1970s and discusses his character a bit.
- Weaving Reality into Drama (26 min.) - A solid making-of piece that covers the origins of the project, the research put into it, and the difficulties of shooting in international locations with multi-national actors and crew speaking at least three languages other than English.
- Theatrical trailer.
As complex as it is controversial, Syriana is not an evening's light entertainment. Some viewers will find it richly rewarding, while others will label it needlessly convoluted propaganda. I'd like to believe that the film will stand the test of time. It also benefits greatly from a second viewing. With excellent picture quality and a handful of moderately interesting supplements, the HD DVD rates a worthy recommendation, except for those who've already made up their minds to hate it. You know who you are.
The Bourne Identity (HD DVD) - Matt Damon
The Bourne Supremacy (HD DVD) - Damon
The Brothers Grimm (HD DVD) - Damon
Good Night, And Good Luck. (HD DVD) - George Clooney
Traffic (HD DVD) - Stephen Gaghan
HD DVD Review Index
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Toshiba HD DVD Product Introduction Event