Those complaining that Hollywood never turns out films of topical or political substance are likely to embrace “Syriana,” a weighty and deeply intriguing look at the many-tentacled beast that is the international oil industry. Wide-ranging and restlessly probing, Stephen Gaghan’s second directorial effort uses the same mosaic storytelling technique as in his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Traffic” to create a revealing portrait of diverse forces contributing to global tension, particularly concerning the Middle East. Terse, understated and sometimes confusing, this is the rare film that could actually benefit from being significantly longer. Warner Bros. release will become a must-see for thinking audiences and make inroads with the wider public thanks to star names and certain critical acclaim.
Globe-trotting as stealthily as did exec producer Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Twelve,” but with rather more seriousness of intent, Gaghan plunges straight past the received versions of contemporary events to open up a vast range of inquiry that encompasses everyone from oil industry titans and CIA ops to disenfranchised Pakistani workers and a Beirut godfather of Hezbollah. Underexplaining sometimes to a fault, pic keeps the viewer straining to keep tabs on the identities, relationships and allegiances among the dozens of characters (explanatory titles at least identify locations), but while many post-screening discussions will feature “Did you get what was going on there?”-type queries, the disparate threads come together with undeniable power and reasonable clarity by the end.
It’s all about those old standbys, power and money, but the fascination is in the details — the manipulations, betrayals, deceit and tragedies, the immoral extremes to which true believers (in religion, capitalism, the principles of government) will go and at what human cost. Analytical and revelatory in nature, the film is not designed to elicit rooting interests or a strong emotional pull, nor is it didactic or motivated by political point-making. It mainly wants to strip away conventional perceptions to present one closely observed view of what makes the world go ’round.
If there’s a chief among equals here, it’s graying, bearded, portly CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney, with 30 extra pounds), who’s first seen unloading two sophisticated stinger missiles to a young Iranian in Tehran.
Back in the U.S., two petroleum behemoths are about to merge, one that’s losing its drilling rights in a fictional Gulf state to a higher Chinese bidder, the other of which has just snared access to Kazakhstan. Situation in the Gulf nation is delicate since the aging Emir needs to select a successor from between his sophisticated older son Nasir (Alexander Siddig), who favors the Chinese deal, and his uncouth younger one Meshal (Akbar Kurtha), who’s Yank-friendly.
Meanwhile, the merger is being assessed by D.C. attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), whose boss Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) is a major behind-the-scenes power player in oil and politics. Then there’s Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a Geneva-based energy analyst who becomes deeply involved with Nasir after a terrible accident makes the prince feel indebted to the American.
Lurking beneath the radar is young Pakistani oil refinery laborer Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir), who, with his father, is laid off after the Chinese takeover and falls under the sway of a radical Islamic cleric in the Gulf.
In laying out the story’s underpinnings, Gaghan, whose prior outing as helmer was the under-realized 2002 suspenser “Abandon,” takes a terse, even cryptic approach that quickly signals you’re going to have to stay on your toes to keep up. Only with reluctance does the writer-director supply what normally passes for exposition, and he and editor Tim Squyres keep the rhythms tense and the mood off-kilter without resorting to manufactured-feeling suspense cutting.
Even when it’s not entirely clear what’s going on, the scenes are mostly dramatic and absorbing, with a feeling of credibility rooted in the palpably real settings and naturalistic dialogue.
When Barnes arrives in Beirut to undertake a hit, he’s greeted by a Hezbollah welcoming committee that packs him off in a car to meet their boss, a serene gent who approves his presence. Before he can do his nasty deed, however, Barnes is turned on by one of his own and undergoes gruesome fingernail extraction torture (a scene that injured Clooney’s own spinal cord) before a last-second reprieve.
But it’s curtains for his CIA career. Frozen out, the perennial agency loyalist is forced to extreme measures to reclaim his passports for one more trip to the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Holiday arranges for a couple of powerful men to take the fall so that the oil merger can go ahead, and Woodman accepts guilt money that creates an irreparable rupture with his wife (Amanda Peet). As for Wasim, he becomes tempted by the idea of a nonstop ticket to paradise.
The richness of detail is immense, evincing Gaghan’s years of research: the booze and floozies in Tehran; the parched lives of immigrant workers in the Gulf; the convinced attitudes of members of a Washington-based Committee for the Liberation of Iran; the comparative ways Texans and Arabs wear their oil birthrights; the arguments among Islamic youth about the righteousness of virginity; the competing pulls of modernity and fundamentalism in the Middle East, and corruption, corruption everywhere.
Given the breadth of Gaghan’s canvas, there’s a sense that “Syriana” may even have been trimmed down too much, that more information would have been welcome. William Hurt pops up only for two quick scenes as a friend of Barnes, latter’s son (Max Minghella) has but a toss-away interlude, and repeated appearances by Holiday’s grouchy father are confounding.
Performances are all cut from the same serious, unostentatious cloth. Clooney, in an effective, self-effacing turn, delivers an agent whose determination still trumps a growing exasperation. Damon embodies a boy-man whose opportunistic moral choice will forever define him, while Siddig cuts a compelling figure as a British-educated Arab royal whose breaks with tradition prove far too “progressive” for long-standing vested interests. Wright’s character is so zipped up and close-to-the-vest that even this most inventive of thesps can’t provide a glimmer of Holiday’s inner life.
Lensed to a great extent in Dubai and Morocco, as well as in Europe and the States, pic gives the impression of great mobility and agitation without Gaghan and cinematographer Robert Elswit indulging in visual showboating; compositions are actually rather plain. Dominant effect of the locations is backed up with seamless production design by Dan Weil.