“Syriana is one of the most relevant stories in the world today,” says the film’s executive producer, Jeff Skoll, in the “Make a Change, Make a Difference” featurette on Warner Brothers’ new DVD release. He’s absolutely right, as even a cursory glance at world and domestic news will confirm. The film paints an unflinching portrait of the world’s dependence on oil and the lengths to which politicians and businessmen will go to maintain the status quo in the global oil fields, even as that status quo contributes to the rise of Islamic extremism in countries where people are afforded few other options.
Yep, just another light day at the cineplex. Hardly. Syriana is a difficult film, in subject and in style. Inspired by the book See No Evil by former CIA operative Robert Baer, it deals with complex issues told in a complex manner by screenwriter/director Stephen Gaghan. If the plot structure reminds you a bit too much of producer Steven Soderbergh’s Academy Award–winning film Traffic, that’s because Gaghan also penned that screenplay. Whereas Traffic dealt with people, places, and things with which we’re more familiar, Syriana explores landscapes and themes that are foreign to most of us. We’re asked to follow a lot of characters and to wade through dialogue that often assumes knowledge we don’t have. It’s active movie watching at its most exhausting—and, ultimately, its most fulfilling.
Given the film’s relevance and complexity, I was surprised by the DVD’s paltry bonus content. Beyond the short featurette I mentioned above, you get a few deleted scenes and an interview with George Clooney. There’s no commentary, no historical perspective, no interviews with current experts to further explore the issue. The 2.35:1 anamorphic picture is clean and nicely detailed, with a natural color palette that breathes life into the many landscapes. Music and the occasional explosion kick the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack into gear, but its primary function is to relay that sometimes unintelligible dialogue intelligibly.
Perhaps the DVD’s strongest asset is simply that it allows for multiple viewings of the movie. Once you shake off the feelings of hopelessness and frustration that the first viewing inspires, you can dive back in to access the film on a deeper level, thus allowing you to achieve even deeper feelings of hopelessness and frustration. It’s one of those films that is hard to watch but important to see.