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Syriana plots the convoluted connection between Big Oil and bad governments

Early on in Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, the son of Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon’s very-American energy consultant) is standing at the edge of a pool being prodded to jump in by an Arabian boy. When Woodman rises to intervene, his wife tells him, “No, let him work it out on his own. It’s important for his autonomy.” Later, Arab Prince Nasir Al-Subaii (Alexander Siddig) announces in a speech, “We respect each country’s right to move at its own pace.” The film is burdened by at least a dozen other examples of heavy-handedness, the sort of “lesson!” rhetoric that bogged down Gaghan’s previous screenplay, Traffic. But somehow Syriana’s dense, convoluted exploration of the relationship between the U.S. military-industrial complex and Arab economies surmounts its flaws to become something clumsily remarkable.

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To even attempt to synopsize the film is an exercise in futility, however. Gaghan spent several years researching for the film, using ex-spook Robert Baer’s factual See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Solider in the CIA’s War on Terrorism as a starting point. He covered every conceivable angle he could along the way, including Big Oil’s movers and shakers, the Arab emirs they manipulate, the CIA covert operatives that go bump in the night, and disfranchised Pakistani workers cum terrorists who ... well, who knows how they fit into the plot? But they do, and you won’t mind—even if some folks find humanizing suicide bombers a despicable attempt to justify terror. (To see it done to greater effect, however, check out Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now).

George Clooney, who has been widely cited as one of the primary reasons Syriana was made, proves yet again that his endorsement of a film usually guarantees substantive entertainment that’ll fly in the face of standard Hollywood fare. Here, in addition to his executive-producer credit, he plays perennial CIA warrior Bob Barnes. Barnes is by no means a hero in the cinematic sense, but he obviously believes in his mission. When his situational ethics reach a breaking point, Washington tries to silence him. It’s only as the film’s thriller clip races toward the climax that Barnes realizes what a waste it’s all been. “Your entire career you’ve been used and probably don’t even know what for,” Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer’s real-world Darth Sidious) tells him.

Prince Nasir, of an unnamed, very-Saudi Arabia-like country knows what for, though. His father, the ailing emir, will soon step down, and the progressive, U.S.-educated prince wants to succeed him in order to rebuild his country’s infrastructure, enfranchise female voters, and nationalize the oil industry—an action he knows will bring him into conflict with U.S. oil interests. Unfortunately, those interests are already working against him and plotting to place Nasir’s incompetent, Yank-friendly brother on the throne.

When energy consultant Woodman’s son drowns at a party thrown by Nasir’s father—apparently, the kid’s autonomy did him no good—Nasir hires Woodman’s firm so that Woodman can serve as his personal economic advisor. Woodman’s opportunistic moral choice to come aboard places him at odds with his wife, but also puts him in position to directly influence a man he believes can revolutionize the emirate and, by extension, the whole Middle East. He winds up chasing a dream as much as Nasir, and with Barnes the three characters exist to point out just how hopeless reform might be when the U.S. has its hand in the honey jar.

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George Clooney’s CIA agent, above and below center, is one of a passel of morally compromised characters that drive Syriana’s elaborate plot. Matt Damon, left, Alexander Siddig, back center, and Jeffrey Wright also star.

Rounding out the main characters is Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a Big Oil lawyer out to machinate a possible merger of two oil companies, Connex and Killen, by investigating both for improprieties. Holiday is responsible for revealing to the audience just how powerful the oil industry has become and how integrated its interests are with the U.S.’s need to guarantee its petroleum security. His is a morally flawed character overwhelmed by opportunity and greed, like his employers. “Corruption keeps us safe and warm,” he learns from exec Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson). “Corruption is why we’re here.”

Syriana

Dir. Stephen Gaghan; writ. Gaghan; feat. Kayvan Novak, George Clooney, Amr Waked, Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Alexander Siddig (R)

Of the performances, Clooney’s is the most interesting to watch—and not for academic reasons. Having packed on 30 pounds, grown a beard, and shaved back his hairline, he has become a beefy man that carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. Or is that guilt? To watch him lumber about, breathing so heavily, one almost forgets he was once dubbed People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. Damon, Wright, and Plummer all swing their parts effectively, too, but the real stand-out here is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine alumni Siddig, who was impressive earlier this year in Kingdom of Heaven and broke my heart here in a performance that inspires real hope for the Middle East’s future.

Ultimately, though, Gaghan’s habit of under-explaining undermines his actors’ efforts and the viewer is tasked with keeping up with the numerous storylines that only start to come together near the end of the second act. Also, whispers and muffled conversations might be apropos to the world of economic terrorism, but by forcing the viewer to “listen in,” Gaghan often discourages us from becoming emotionally involved in the story. Even at 126 minutes, one can’t help but wonder if 10 more minutes could’ve been spared to further elaborate.

By Cole Haddon


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