The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Syriana (2005)
2.35:1 (16x9 enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Warner Home Video, $28.95

A detailed examination of the energy industry’s role in American foreign policy might not sound like the stuff of gripping entertainment, but Syriana is just that: an exciting thriller that’s all the more suspenseful because it’s entrenched in real-world issues. Director/writer Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) explores the subject of America’s dependence on foreign oil through a complicated, ensemble-based narrative that jumps from the Persian Gulf to Washington to Europe while establishing connections between corporations, governments and terrorists.

The plotting is quite complicated, and an astonishing amount of material is packed into the two-hour film. Gaghan’s dense screenplay is lent even more depth by cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC (Good Night, and Good Luck; Magnolia; Boogie Nights), who uses the widescreen frame and fluid, handheld camerawork to provide multiple perspectives within each scene. The frame is in a state of perpetual flux, but the constant repositioning of the camera allows the viewer to assimilate more information throughout each sequence without becoming disoriented.

Elswit’s visuals are incredibly subtle and effective. His combination of handheld camerawork and naturalistic lighting gives Syriana the appearance of a documentary, but at the same time, his use of lenses and composition creates highly subjective images that beautifully express the emotional states of the characters. Elswit is particularly adept at manipulating depth of field; within the same scene, he often rapidly moves between deep-focus compositions that provide context and long-lens shots that isolate specific characters or objects. This allows the viewer to simultaneously get both a wider perspective and an intimate experience.

Warner Home Video has done Syriana justice with this DVD, whose transfer allows the home viewer to appreciate the nuances of Elswit’s palette and the intricacies of the film’s elaborate sound design. In a movie with this many characters and storylines, the sound mix is crucial, and Syriana uses an impeccably calibrated balance of dialogue, effects and music to provide clarity and texture. The disc’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is as stunning as Elswit’s imagery in this flawless transfer.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, the DVD features two enjoyable 10-minute featurettes, “A Conversation with George Clooney” and “Make a Change, Make a Difference,” which illuminate the filmmakers’ intentions but do not offer much in the way of technical information, and a fascinating collection of three deleted scenes that focus on CIA operative Bob Barnes, played by Clooney in an Academy Award-winning performance. These scenes expand on the film’s moral complexity and make Barnes’ fate even more chilling.

It’s too bad the articulate Gaghan did not contribute an audio commentary to this package, but Syriana still offers plenty of illuminating insights on its own.

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