“In the CIA, as elsewhere in the federal government, you’re innocent until you’re investigated.” That line, from former CIA operative Robert Baer’s source material memoir See No Evil, sums up the ambiguous conduct of characters in writer/director Stephen Gaghan’s worldly movie about the corruption and greed underlying the geopolitical system’s myopic focus on oil. The title takes its name from a think-tank term for a reconfigured Middle East in the same way that Chinatown represented a kind of corrupt limbo. Gaghan zooms in and out of four intertwined stories with breathtaking precision toward a gut-wrenching denouement. It’s an interactive political thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat attempting to gauge every opposing character’s clandestine motives and their kinship to real life Texas oilmen, Gulf emirs, Islamic terrorists and White House wonks.
Gaghan (screenwriting Oscar winner for Traffic) has climbed a steep learning curve since his miserable directorial debut in 2002 with his self-penned thriller Abandon. The young director has learned from his mistakes, and directs Syriana with a cinematic muscularity similar to William Friedkin’s movies of the 1970s. Gaghan’s frequently hand-held camera chews through global locations like Beirut, Geneva, Texas and D.C. with an economic style that never comments on terse decisions being made by the players in a grand scheming maze of intrigue.
The thematic temperature of Syriana runs hot and doesn’t waste a single second of film time. For all of the inevitable comparisons to Traffic, Syriana comes across with a more mature sense of restraint than Soderbergh utilized. Gaghan, the screenwriter, wins kudos for never talking down to the audience with explanatory exposition.
Some critics have called Syriana a left-leaning movie, but as George Clooney has noted, it is rather an attack on a system that has been in place for 60 or 70 years with oil at the center of it. Gaghan makes no effort to glamorize any of the main characters any more than he displays their warts with unblinking resolve.
Syriana hits the ground running with a moving-puzzle narrative structure that fitfully weaves its composite characters through scenes that simmer with subtext. Covert CIA op Bob Barnes (Clooney) sells two Stinger missiles to an Iranian in Tehran, while two oil companies are working out an unpleasant merger in Texas under the undesired scrutiny of one tight-lipped Washington, D.C. attorney, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright). One oil company is losing its Middle East drilling rights to a Chinese bidder, while the other has acquired access to Kazakhstan’s motherlode supply of crude oil.
The Chinese takeover of the Gulf oil refinery puts a Pakistani father and son out of work. The son, Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir), is soon radicalized after the physical abuse that he and his father receive at the hands of the local militia, and he joins the ranks of a radical Islamic cleric. Meanwhile, in Geneva, energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) negotiates business with a reform-minded Middle Eastern prince (Alexander Siddig) when he isn’t looking after his wife Julie (Amanda Peet) and their two young children.
Bob Barnes (Clooney) is the fire in the belly of the movie. He finds himself betrayed on all sides. His reflexive and desperate response to his circumstances expresses a helpless ambiguity that all Americans are party to regardless of which side of the red and blue we choose. MTW