You won’t learn what the term “Syriana” means from watching Syriana. You won’t learn it from reading this review, either. If you’re the kind of poli-sci wonk who already knows this particular concept'or the kind of person willing to Google the term'you’re already halfway toward being an ideal audience member for writer/director Stephen Gaghan’s sprawling drama.
Syriana, you see, is as much a position paper as it is a film. It’s a multilayered construction of the tangled connections between business, politics and money as concerns American policies in the Middle East'the petroleum trade equivalent of how Gaghan handled the drug trade in his Oscar-winning script for 2000’s Traffic. For every self-respecting “no blood for oil” left-winger in the country, it’s the feature-film equivalent of shouting, “See, we told you so!
In other words, Syriana should have sucked. That’s generally what happens when filmmakers, however well-intentioned, attempt to instruct us about the most complicated of issues in the space of two hours. They give actors speeches and hope people won’t care if the message is delivered with thudding obviousness, as long as they happen to agree with it.
Syriana, however, insinuates itself into your thinking with its portrait of unintended consequences. The dense narrative follows several characters connected to the recent decision by an unnamed oil-producing country to grant drilling rights to a Chinese company. The American oil company that lost the bid is pursuing a merger to make up for the loss, employing attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) to deal with Justice Department scrutiny. Veteran CIA operative Bobby Barnes (George Clooney), meanwhile, has been given an assignment to assassinate the country’s reform-minded young Emir-in-waiting Nasir (Alexander Siddig) in the best interests of the American economy. And American energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) has become an adviser to Nasir in the wake of a family tragedy.
Don’t expect to find a hero lurking among those characters, or anywhere else in Syriana, for that matter. Gaghan populates his tale with opportunists, thugs, zealots and thieves'without a false-step performance in the bunch'steadfastly refusing to find anyone that we can like. Nasir’s the closest thing to a sympathetic character'a man trying to pull his country into modernity while American interests push things in the opposite direction'but Gaghan rarely allows us to identify with him. He’s more interested in forcing us to identify with the American characters from whose chilling pragmatism our economy benefits.
That’s all well and good as a thesis, but Gaghan also manages to structure events so that they possess an urgency you might not expect from a story built on negotiations. His scenes are often shot in the slightly shaky hand-held style that has become all the rage in “issue” dramas, but there’s no denying that there’s a natural tension even in scenes of people wrangling their way into one ethically bankrupt situation after another. Nothing much happens for long stretches of Syriana, yet when it does'a scene of torture, the buildup towards an assassination'you might feel the anxiety in your toes.
If there’s any major problem with Syriana, it’s that all the nothing-much-that-happens happens a bit too conveniently. There’s a wee bit of irony to the fact that, while Syriana wants to explore how policy objectives never fall into place as neatly as speeches and slogans might suggest, events in the film fall all-too-neatly into place. A Stinger missile sold by Barnes winds up in the hands of an Islamic extremist group that recruits the unemployed oil-field worker (Mazhar Munir) we meet early on. Bennett’s boss at his legal firm (Christopher Plummer) has a tÃªte-a-tÃªte with Barnes. Syriana sets up a series of narrative dominoes, then expects it to serve as an object lesson in geopolitical chaos theory.
Yet much of the time, it actually does work that way. Gaghan can’t always juggle the dozens of characters he introduces'failing to find a point either for Bennett’s alcoholic father or Barnes’ college-bound son'but he somehow crafts a compelling film out of ideas. Syriana is that rare politically themed film that has something to say, yet generally allows you to figure out its meaning on your own.