Syriana, written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, is by far the Bushiest of Bush II thrillers. Set in the really big time, it’s a complicated tale of investigation and intrigue involving Texas oilmen and Gulf emirs, Islamic terrorists and slick lawyers, the CIA and the Committee for the Liberation of Iran, fear of China and hatred of regulation, dubious business deals and missing missiles—just about everything except the big enchilada, Eye-Rack.
Gaghan wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s highly regarded 2000 dope opera Traffic, and Syriana (which was inspired by Robert Baer’s CIA memoir and takes its title from a think-tank term for a reconfigured Middle East) is a comparable game of 3-D Monopoly. Indeed, Gaghan has been widely quoted comparing oil to crack. Given the large cast, the international hopscotch, and the tantalizing illusion of depth, the movie’s tone is Frontline meets John le Carré. Compared to the complacence of something like The Interpreter, it’s a regular brain tickler. Gaghan’s opus runs just over two hours and, complicated as it is in its evocation of new world disorder, could easily have been half an hour longer.
The ensemble is stellar. Bearded and paunchy, George Clooney plays against his looks as a bearish CIA operative who is at once the spook that sits by the door and the spy left out in the cold; Matt Damon is an enthusiastic young energy trader who angrily cashes in on a family tragedy to hook up with a reform-minded Persian Gulf prince (Alexander Siddig); Jeffrey Wright’s very buttoned-down D.C. lawyer dutifully greases the wheels for a merger involving a giant oil company, just shut out of the Gulf, and the smaller outfit run by Chris Cooper’s wildcat Texan, which has locked up the drilling rights to Kazakhstan.
No single scene typifies the movie’s geopolitical whirligig, and yet nearly every one of them is predicated on a subtle reversal of expectations. While, from a liberal perspective, Siddig’s character is a designated good guy and Wright’s boss (Christopher Plummer) is an unambiguous slimeball, no one else’s morality is so clear-cut. What’s particularly novel about Syriana‘s scenario is its reticence in identifying the honest intentions of its three stars. In a sense, this virtue is also the movie’s flaw: There are too many points of view and there is too little time to fully develop the key characterizations.
Or, perhaps the actors have been under-directed. Is Clooney playing a fall guy or a rogue operative or both? At what point does disillusionment set in? (Clooney’s torture scene evidently caused a serious back injury.) Is Damon’s character an avid opportunist or an incipient idealist? Does Wright’s have his own agenda? Is he a monster of passive-aggression or is he simply a tailored suit? Even if character is defined by action, as is customary in the thriller world, there is a sense of abruptly telescoped activity. Clooney’s agent, in particular, has a puzzling genius for hitting the narrative’s dramatic marks all over the world.
Syriana is both topical and anachronistic. It harks back to lefty thrillers of the Watergate era like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, but Gaghan is less fixated on superstar heroism and more
interested in representing a system—if, indeed, that system can be represented. His method is actually more Socratic than his worldview is paranoid. There is the feeling that any location might yield a terrorist bomb and that the big story is (intentionally?) submerged beneath a welter of small plots. Still, the question is always, can we really do this—and does it matter?
Gaghan’s oblique framing, dense editing, and hectic Steadicam make his movie’s tangled narrative skein even harder to unravel. The look recalls Soderbergh—and while Syriana is certainly more fluid than if it had been directed by Michael Mann, it doesn’t dumb itself down. Gaghan assumes that you’ll get the historical reference when someone casually drops the name “Mossadegh,” or recognize the more egregiously self-serving koans certain characters are apt to spout. (“In this town you’re innocent until you’re investigated,” Plummer tells Wright.)
Even at its most didactic, Syriana (like Traffic) is not unduly moralizing. The movie may be too knowing for its own good, but it’s not glib and it never goes cheesy.