A tale of blood and oil

Relevant issues, interwoven plots make for a complex, sprawling drama

It’s not often that a film overestimates the attention span and intellect of its audience — but Stephen Gaghan’s overly dense Syriana does just that, challenging viewers to follow a complex tapestry of covert arms deals, espionage and cynical manipulations by the U.S. government. From Washington, D.C., to Texas to Tehran (and all points between), the film plays international hopscotch with four interconnected plotlines, shuffling them like a deck of geopolitical cards.

For its ambition and intelligence alone, Syriana ranks as 2005’s boldest — though not quite best — film. The sheer amount of detail and information Gaghan throws at his audience will inevitably result in criticisms that the movie is too hard to follow. Don’t believe them. Yes, the narrative is demanding and complicated, but writer-director Gaghan masterfully juggles each and every element and provides the kind of forward momentum that makes it impossible to disengage. He refuses to hold your hand and insists on your complete attention, but provides fascinating visuals, smart dialogue and striking scenes.

Syriana is very much the descendant of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (also written by Gaghan), unfolding its intertwining stories like an elaborate puzzle the audience must piece together. George Clooney (35 pounds heavier and sporting a beard) plays Bob Barnes, an aging CIA operative nearing the end of his career. Stationed in the Middle East, he’s known for his blunt style and willingness to engage in unsavory operations. When a Stinger missile goes missing and a turncoat thwarts a U.S.-sanctioned hit, Bob is set up as the fall guy.

Connected is the shady merger of two American oil companies. Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), CEO of the smaller Killen, has miraculously acquired drilling rights in Kazakhstan, where other larger companies have failed. Lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is brought in by the larger Connex to grease the proposed merger’s wheels and foil any attempt by the government to interfere.

Meanwhile, reform-minded Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig) prepares to become emir of an unnamed, oil-rich country. He incurs the wrath of the U.S. government when he accepts a high-bid offer from the Chinese, daring to put his own nation’s interests before ours. When a personal tragedy introduces the prince to an ambitious energy analyst (Matt Damon), he finds a talented ally in his bid for reform. Unbeknownst to both, however, U.S. officials and corporate agents conspire to undermine Nasir’s ascension to the throne. On the other end of the spectrum, a young Pakistani migrant worker is fired from his oil field job because of the impending Connex merger. Poor and disenfranchised, he falls in with a charismatic Egyptian terrorist ... and Bob’s missing Stinger missile.

Loosely adapted from ex-CIA agent Robert Baer’s See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terror, Gaghan’s intricate spiderweb of a film evokes paranoid thrillers of the ’70s like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. Through the prism of current events, he channels the pessimism and disgust that’s settled into our national psyche, indicting our government as no longer trustworthy.

All the stories share a thematic link of father-son relationships, but this is just sloppy icing on an otherwise rich cake. Syriana is more interested in ideas than people. The film’s characters are little more than cinematic chess pieces, failing to make an emotional connection even when they meet dramatically tragic fates. Nevertheless, the cast brings both substance and style to their underwritten roles. Clooney proves that he’s not only an engaging movie star but also a damn fine actor. His hollow-eyed performance shows us the burned-out heart of a man who’s become disengaged from morality. Wright is equally marvelous as a lawyer who harbors the ruthless ambitions of a predator. Siddig, who spent many lost years on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, shines as the beleaguered Prince.

At times, Syriana feels simultaneously overstuffed and undernourished. The film confronts the economic, political and personal implications of a world that increasingly embraces the idea that the end justifies the means — but it fails to provide us with an emotional payoff. This may be Gaghan’s point. There are no true heroes or villains, and no tidy resolution. His characters wallow in moral ambiguity, ignorant of the impact their lives will have upon the world. But couldn’t that be said of us all? The line between cynicism and realism is sometimes hard to distinguish.

Syriana is a fascinating and nuanced film with a rather simple message: The ruthless and violent pursuit of profit and greed will sow the seeds of resistance, giving rise to yet more violence. But this isn’t much of a surprise; the true accomplishment of this film is that it challenges you to examine your own role in this vicious cycle.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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