The sprawling geopolitical thriller Syriana is sure to take the edge off the jangly cheer of the holiday season, with its usual panoply of glittery feel-good entertainments. Stephen Gaghan's headfirst plunge into machinations of the oil industry is a wild ride through thick forests of policy, propaganda and endemic corruption that doesn't even offer us the sop of a hero.
What director and screenwriter Gaghan does provide is a complex treatise on ambition, the delicate interplay of adversarial parties for mutual self-interest, and the fallacy of order -- as played out by an international roster of key players. To that end, Gaghan crafts multiple storylines, each rich with detail, supporting characters, fact and innuendo, and delivered with the urgent pace of an action film.
Here in the U.S., we've got the cold-eyed, good ol' CEO Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), who heads a small Texas oil company which, having just secured the rights to fields in Kazakhstan, seeks to merge with a larger firm which has just lost a lucrative oil deal in the Persian Gulf to the Chinese. The Department of Justice puts Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a rising star at a top-notch Beltway law firm, on due-diligence assignment for the proposed merger.
The maker of the Chinese deal is Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the heir apparent in an unidentified oil-rich Persian Gulf country. For purposes of future strategy, including possible social reform, Nasir hires, by way of a blood deal, Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a European-based oil-industry financial analyst. At the bottom of this ladder is Wasim (Mazhar Munir), a young Pakistani immigrant who is laid off after the Chinese deal. Marginalized economically and socially, Wasim joins a madrassa, for both the hot meals and the dignity its Islamic teachings confers upon him.
Off in the shadows between here and abroad is Bob Barnes (George Clooney) -- career CIA, a capable Mid East operative due to come in from the cold, but who instead finds himself frozen out by Langley after one last job goes off-track. His growing disillusion with Standard Operating Procedure is the closest we get to a moral compass.
Gaghan, who previously collected an Oscar for his Traffic screenplay, based some of Syriana on the biography of real-life CIA agent Robert Baer (for whom Clooney stands in), and he also undertook a year of intensive on-the-ground research. Such prep work is evident in his script, which, while occasionally overly instructive, nonetheless is packed with details that feel inside. And this is no Oil Wars for Dummies: Throughout, Gaghan assumes viewer foreknowledge of such critical points as the oil-rich Gulf countries' reliance on Asian guest workers; how Beirut has changed since 1985; and precisely where Kazakhstan is.
As such, don't be fooled by this film's advertising campaign, which touts explosions and a bit of chase action. Syriana is a dense talkie, albeit set in exotic locales, packed with words about the snarl of politics, geography, economics and oil, delivered by unreliable narrators (imagine Moneyline, with the occasional car bomb). While the film requires effort on the viewer's part -- for instance, some storylines don't intersect but simply run concurrent, leaving you to assign the cross-significance -- I found the narrative consistently compelling and welcomed the chance to put its various pieces into place.
Syriana boasts a sturdy, enjoyable cast. Clooney blobbed up for the role as the indistinct CIA agent, and there's little trace of the suave playboy in his flabby physique or his slumped shoulders. Damon returns to play the glib schemer. Wright, unfortunately, has too little to do, employed primarily as a conduit for overturning stones in the plot. A few cameo roles are gimmes: Tim Blake Nelson drops by as a connected oilman to deliver a few sentences outlining the film's theme ("Corruption is why we win."); William Hurt is another middle-aged bland guy, a former spook; and old hand Christopher Plummer brings his plummy tones to his role as behind-the-scenes legal power.
A project this ambitious isn't without flaws, chief among them the density of so much information crammed into a mere two hours, which leaves many characters undeveloped, particularly emotionally. But the narrative's deliberate murkiness allows us to view its characters as inscrutable rather than poorly scripted, and the film's pace rushes us past, as we're breathless for the next twist. And if the conclusion felt a trifle convenient, I still appreciated that not all threads resolved, leaving some stories to unfold beyond our ken.
A whiff of liberal outrage accompanies Syriana -- some bias is to be expected delving into such hot-button topics -- but mostly the film suggests a general culpability inherent in our collective laissez-faire status quo (how easily we demanded our government do something about lowering gas prices this fall, but do we really want to know how?). Gaghan is certainly on point with today's headlines -- whether it's the fight for democracy (read: "petroleum security") in the Middle East, the easy collusion between barely regulated industries and the federal government, or the peculiar pains wrought by globalization.
Yet Syriana is not a muckraking polemic that will inspire you to do anything (except maybe sort out all the plot points with a pal in the parking lot). It's rife with cynicism and feels heavy with the realization that even pulling back the curtain to reveal the ugly workings of power doesn't make them any less likely to occur. For despite Syriana's calamitous conclusion and its bits of dangling plot, I realized afterward that I had no doubt that the deal most favorable to the largest interests would still go through. In English, and various languages, with subtitles.