Having nabbed himself an Oscar for penning 2001's drug war drama Traffic, screenwriter Stephen Gaghan has turned his ambitions up a notch to take on the task of writing and directing the structurally similar ensemble drama Syriana. Shifting his addictive subject matter from drugs to oil, Gaghan uses former CIA case officer Robert Baer's nonfiction book See No Evil as loose source material, spinning off a complex, interwoven set of (fictional) narratives that highlight various elements of today's international oil-based economy.
The film's entangled tales include a slightly over-the-hill CIA agent (George Clooney) trying to hunt down a missing missile in the Middle East, a Washington D.C. lawyer (Jeffrey Wright, “Angels in America”) who's overseeing the merger of two oil company giants, a Geneva-based energy broker (Matt Damon) who spins an unimaginable personal tragedy into a business windfall, and a pair of unemployed Pakistanis who fall under the spell of a charismatic cleric. All these storylines revolve around that of a “progressive” Kazakhstani prince (Alexander Siddig, formerly of “Star Trek: Voyager”) who dreams of reforming his backward country.
Gaghan's narrative is dense and requires quite a bit of concentration to untangle. Casual viewers are warned away. Thinking viewers, on the other hand, will be thrilled with a film that actually engages their thought patterns. Despite its length and complexity, Syriana is surprisingly tight-lipped. Aside from a few title cards listing the various globe-hopping locations, viewers are left to their own devices. There are no narrators here, no easy answers to questions that might arise.
Gaghan is at his best when probing the assorted octopus-like tentacles of today's oil business. As a thriller, Syriana is a frightening one. Rarely has a film gotten across so clearly the idea that these things—be they politics or business—are so much larger than us mere mortals. Though it has been branded a liberal political rant, Syriana rarely relies on partisan politics. There are no big speeches, no obvious lessons to be imparted. This is merely an examination of business as usual. And even the most loyal, most conservative GOP backer would be considered naïve to think that multi-billion-dollar business deals don't involve equal amounts of backslapping, backstabbing and backroom dealing.
The main point of Gaghan's film is that American business interests have much more to gain from an unstable Middle East. If the Middle East were able to put up a united front, if it were ruled by someone other than unthinkingly rich royalty interested only in spending millions of dollars on useless toys, if it weren't so reliant on its one highly exhaustible resource, then it might actually be able to fend off the puppet-like control of American corporations.
There's no doubt that Gaghan has nailed the politics of business. More questionable is if he's afforded his characters any real life. He's certainly staffed the film with some able actors. But he keeps them quiet and gives them only tantalizing shreds of character to play with. Clooney's role is, perhaps, the most interesting. Stuck in Lebanon on a rapidly degenerating quest, he is cut loose by the agency and left to his own devices. Clooney, who gained a good 30 pounds for the role, fully inhabits the shell of this burned-out, but still resourceful, old-school spook. But the script's few hints of a divorce and an unhappy son (Max Minghella, Bee Season) back in the states are unsatisfyingly brief interludes. Similarly, Jeffrey Wright's morally ambiguous character is given an alcoholic father as a hint of backstory, but it never really develops into anything. Wright's lawyer is so buttoned-down, in fact, it's almost impossible to detect his character arc. Most frustrating is Matt Damon's storyline. Though he's given the most emotional tale of the bunch, the tragedy that sparks his sudden rise to riches is barely addressed. Sure this is serious stuff, Stephen, but does it all have to be so somber and funereal?
The film's most controversial storyline, of course, is that of the two young Pakistani boys who are being groomed as suicide bombers. Some have criticized the film for portraying terrorists in a sympathetic light. Actually, the film does no such thing. In fact, it quite accurately and quite frighteningly shows how disenfranchised, uneducated, economically depressed people can easily be lured into fundamentalism. But, like the other storylines, it would have been nice if this one had contained a bit more emotion.
Added up in one lump sum, Syriana is a blisteringly contemporary film that weighs in on some mighty hefty subjects with intelligence and ambition. It is probably a bit too cerebral and never really finds a way out of the deeply pessimistic pit it digs, but it is guaranteed to spark some spirited post-film discussion. Which is more than you can say for most Hollywood offerings.