Syriana (2005)

By Vincent Armentano


Syriana found its way to Netflix this past week and so it seemed fitting to write this piece to coincide

with its digital release. If you’re curious about the quality of the film, it was nominated for Best Original

Screenplay in 2006 and George Clooney won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his

performance as CIA Agent, Bob Barnes. The film is going to incite strong reactions from all of its viewers.

People interested in Psychology, International Law, Geopolitics and Economics are all going to have

different perspectives on what world and what message the film is trying to paint for the audience.

Naturally, this piece is going to focus on the economic elements of Syriana.


The film uniquely centers on the relationships between a large set of characters. They include executives

of oil giants, Department of Justice Lawyers, Middle Eastern Foreign Ministers, CIA officers and

Economic Consultants. It emphasizes the way the various character’s actions impact each other rather

than on the characters themselves. For example; how does an average American’s quest for the best

price manifest itself as unemployment overseas and potentially create a conducive environment for

terrorist recruiters? The film’s view of the way the world economy works is bringing into question

whether or not we even live in a capitalist society. It painstakingly creates a narrative showcasing how

countries use various instruments of influence, like agent Bob Barnes to “fix” the economic game in the

favor of domestically based companies and corporations. Particular characters seem to represent the

true ideals of capitalism while others seem to be holding other priorities. One of the film’s most

memorable moments is a monologue misconstruing a quote from Milton Friedman and continuing on

saying that “Corruption is our protection…corruption is why we win”. Perhaps an analogy or symbolism

for the way the director believes economic theory is made use of in political discourse today. Other

memorable dialogue sequences attack issues of bias in international relations with regard to free trade

as well as the relationship between government and the private sector. “I like consulting…and I’ll say

this for it ‘Private business is efficient’…and the CIA is like, what, a 30 billion dollar a year business, so

anybody who wants to sell anything…they gotta interface through a security clearance”.

The kind of behavior seen throughout the film though, is eerily reminiscent of how the economies of

Europe operated in the 17th and 18th centuries under the mercantile system. It feels as though the

director wants us to look behind the language we hear every day of competition and the free market

and deeply examine whether or not we are living in a capitalist society. Some speculate that the

hypothetical merger being investigated in the film is symbolic of the 2004 case investigating James

Giffen of allegedly bribing the Kazakh government with $80 Million on behalf of Mobil and Chevron. The

government protection and political economy in the film seem to be the exact things that infuriated

Adam Smith and why he wrote Wealth of Nations; his magnum opus and polemic response to the

mercantile system.


The film’s biggest challenge comes from the fact that it is a film. While the expansive network of

characters and all their linkages would fit perfectly in a book, it never feels like we have time to develop

a real relationship with the characters in the film. It may be no coincidence though; Syriana is loosely

based on the memoir of Ex-CIA Case Officer, Robert Baer titled See No Evil.

The fact that the Syriana brings up such grand questions is enough to recommend it. While you’ll

ultimately have to decide for yourself what the message is, the fact that you’re even engaging in

discussion would mean that the film was a success in the eyes of its creators.

Syriana gets 4 burned CIA officers out of 5.


To learn more about the Giffen Corruption Case:

To see the book Syriana was loosely based off of:

If you’re interested in the topic of modern day mercantilism, suggested reading:

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