The well-oiled machine of "Syriana"
directed & written by Stephen Gaghan
starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Mazhar Munir, Alexander Siddig, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Amanda Peet, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, others
One Manchurian, one interpreter, one gardener, and one imaginary Middle Eastern state later, it’s safe to say the global political thriller is back. Retooled for the twenty-first century, this latest wave of conspiracy-minded filmmaking reflects a post-Information Age, post-globalization, and post-9/11 sensibility that even the minds behind “Three Days of the Condor” could only begin to imagine. The underlying paranoia, however, remains essentially the same. It comprises a willingness to believe in the possibility that vast, shadowy networks of interests (usually some combination of corporations and nation-states) are colluding to control the invisible channels of power that affect you, me, and millions of other equally hapless and oblivious individuals.
Depending on your political stripe or level of sympathy for those much-maligned corporate interests, you may find this baseline suspension of disbelief too hard to swallow, let alone stomach, movies like “Syriana.” But you shouldn’t. For “Syriana,” at least, is no mere exercise in crackpot liberal conspiracy theory. It’s a tense, carefully mapped, defiantly cerebral exploration of the far-reaching consequences of the world’s dependence on oil. No surprise, then, that it’s directed by Stephen Gaghan, who adapted the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” though it was originally inspired by (and loosely based on) Robert Baer’s book “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Warrior in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.”
“Syriana,” named for the geopolitical (fantasy) concept of an ideal, stable, U.S.-friendly Middle East, is a densely plotted film with at least four major plot strands and many more subsidiary branches, all involving dozens of characters whose paths cross in sometimes-surprising ways. Among the main players, there’s Bob Barnes (George Clooney, playing effectively against type), a career CIA agent who barely survives a mission gone horribly wrong, only to discover that his own government has hung him out to dry; Bennett Holiday (the chameleonic Jeffrey Wright), a D.C. energy firm lawyer assigned to oversee a prospective merger between two oil companies while fending off investigation of their agreement by the Department of Justice; Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an expatriated American analyst who’s hired as adviser to Prince Nasir (a marvelous Alexander Siddig), the independent-minded heir to an oil-rich emirate; and a young Pakistani immigrant (Mazhar Munir) who loses his oil drilling job at the outset of the movie and spends the rest of it drifting towards Islamic fundamentalism.
Yes, these threads are all connected. No, you probably won’t catch all the finer points as to how, unless you have perfect hearing and a photographic memory. It’s like tossing a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle up in the air and having two hours to put the whole thing together without the box to guide you. This total lack of guidance can be a tad frustrating at times. Still, it’s refreshing to see a movie that makes actual, substantial demands on the viewer’s intelligence and for the most part keeps its message unclouded by sentimentalism. The one exception is its vaguely sympathetic treatment of the potential suicide bomber, which is also, unfortunately, the most facile and ineffectual of the storylines—especially by comparison with the recent “Paradise Now,” a film that focused on much the same subject in far greater depth.
The other storylines of “Syriana,” in contrast, suffer from the opposite problem: the film maintains such a neutral, nonjudgmental distance from its protagonists that even when they suffer—and several of them suffer terribly—they seem less like three-dimensional characters who evoke our empathy than pawns in an immense, coldly calculated game. But that, in some sense, is precisely the point. If "Syriana" doesn't make you, too, feel like a pawn, then it hasn't done its job.
It did its job with me. I left the theater feeling like one sick, angry pawn. This is a movie that made me never want to fill my gas tank again.
RATING: *** 1/4