Syriana: Hollywood’s Oil Flick

Perhaps "Syriana’s" biggest weakness (if one can call it that) is that Gaghan doesn’t pander to his audience. Instead, he seamlessly stitches together a complex and fast-moving narrative that tracks more than a dozen characters on four continents, assuming we know more about the way the world really works than we might.

To fully appreciate "Syriana’s" storyline, it’s important to understand that the world currently consumes 80 million barrels of oil a day, with the globe’s richest and most powerful empire (that’s the U.S.) burning up 20 million of those barrels. Understand, further, that the United States reached "peak oil" (maximum domestic production capacity) in 1970, when it produced 10 million barrels of oil a day. Now, as U.S. supply dwindles, the country currently produce only 5 million domestic barrels a day (while consuming 20 million, remember), for a yearly consumption total of 7 billion barrels, while possessing only 28 billion barrels in strategic reserves. That leaves fifteen million barrels of oil the U.S. needs each day that we can’t produce ourselves. If oil-producing nations (say Iran or Venezuela) cut the U.S. off tomorrow, we’d have only four years of oil and natural gas left.

Rather than give the oil-producing nations of the world that kind of power, U.S. based energy corporations (the fictional Connex and Killan corporations, who merge in "Syriana) and the U.S. government (now essentially the same entity, with Team Bush/Cheney/Condi/ Wolfy/Rummy running DC) have worked tirelessly during the past few decades to secure control over the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves.

Make no mistake – under cover of a post-911 "war on terror," the U.S. government is waging a sequential struggle to control the planet’s known remaining oil and natural gas reserves – Afghanistan and Iraq are but stepping stones to increased U.S. geo-strategic control over the greater Middle East.

The C.I.A., represented in "Syriana" by George Clooney’s Bob Barnes, an agent who moves from true believer to angry skeptic, exists primarily to do the unpleasant but necessary work of funding Wall Street bankers and fueling U.S. imperial expansion by employing a wide variety of tools to ensure that the right deals are made by the right governments: drug smuggling, money laundering, weapons smuggling, election skullduggery, and assassination. Access and control of oil reserves is integral to their mission, as "Syriana" suggests.

And, as "Syriana" makes plain throughout the story, energy corporations and the U.S. government are doing this, not just to make huge profits, but to perpetuate the current oil-lubricated American way of life for as long as possible. Many of us may pay lip service to opposing Team Bush/Exxon/ Cheney/ Halliburton’s plans, but as long as we refuse to make a radical energy shift, we are complicit in this whole exercise. Without being heavy-handed or preachy, Gaghan reminds us of this in subtle ways throughout the film.

And, lest we get too cranky with ourselves, other powerful nations (China, with an economy exploding at an annual 10% rate, takes center stage in "Syriana") are desperately looking for fuel, and the often-corrupt patriarchal emirs of Middle Eastern oil-producing nations are happy to sell, especially if it means enriching their own pockets and building their own palaces as part of the bargain. And what if a more enlightened desert despot (Iran’s Prince Nasir in "Syriana) wishes to sell his country’s black gold to the highest bidder (say, China) to make possible a more democratic, tolerant and prosperous society for his own people? Declare him a terrorist ("communist" or "socialist" are so retro) and eliminate him.

"Everything is connected," reads "Syrian’s" tag line. Indeed it is. We also meet energy trader Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), who ends up backing Nasir’s efforts to nationalize his country’s energy fields; Iranian and displaced oil worker-turned fundamentalist/terrorist Wasim Khan; investigative lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) and a host of other characters whose lives converge in one of the most provocative and true-to-life stories of our time.

"Syriana" is probably the closest Hollywood will ever come to presenting on honest picture of our Peak Oil dilemma. Don’t miss it.


Historian, musician, and media educator Rob Williams lives in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Read, listen to, and watch his stuff at