Syriana opens with a throng of Arab men quarreling over the right to board a bus. The camera peers at the scene through a heavy morning mist that blankets the surroundings in a deep gray fog, and though we can see the agitated movements of confrontation, we can hear no dialog–only a simmering, nervous score. It is a telling moment that, like much of the film, reveals itself only through obfuscation. For in Syriana, every look is a tremor rippling with uncertainty, and every word is a half-truth spoken in code. A web of desultory plot-strings chronicling terrorism, espionage, and the oil business, writer and director Stephen Gaghan’s film is a cryptic tangle of conspiracy and interconnectedness. It is the sort of dense, ambiguous thriller rarely seen in Hollywood. And while it ends in a dismaying hodgepodge of conventional liberal piffle, it is first and foremost an intellectually engaging thriller that drills a deep well of complicity and complexity.
Like the intersecting drugs-and-government narratives in Traffic, which Gaghan also wrote, Syriana juggles a wide cast of characters, locales, and plotlines. From Beirut to Houston to Georgetown, the film maps a sprawling maze of contradictory motives and chance meetings, all with a stubborn sense of minimalism and misdirection. Those who avoid movies that could be described as “confusing” would be advised to stay away, for Gaghan’s script has the narrative density of lead, offering only molecule-sized hints as signposts by which to guide viewers through the labyrinthine passageways that connect American government, business, and oil interests.
Gaghan reportedly spent time in Washington researching the connections between government and industry, and whatever his film’s political distortions, he chisels out a wry, unrelentingly bleak image of the nation’s capitol as a gloomy, rain-soaked den of perfidy and ominous backroom collusion. For Gaghan, the city is a dark moon of low moral gravity cratered with increasingly difficult tests of integrity.
If the city’s beleaguered dreariness is somewhat exaggerated, its peculiar habits are not. From the constant thumbing of omnipresent Blackberries to the full-reverse conversational leaps between discussions of national security and kids’ soccer games, the Washington scenes compose a cynic’s tour of the District.
Despite George Clooney’s dominant presence in the film’s marketing–the poster is a digitally altered image of his bound, beaten face–the actor is held to a supporting role in a wide ensemble of almost uniformly excellent performers. Jeffrey Wright plays a coolly incisive D.C. lawyer on a murky quest for due diligence, and once again he displays a gift for seamless transformation so thorough and certain that it is almost unnoticeable. Christopher Plummer brings a sublime menace to his role as a District legal baron, and Chris Cooper plies his usual blend of ornery arrogance and toothy-grinned magnetism as an oil industry bigwig.
If anyone fares badly, it’s Matt Damon as an energy-market analyst who, through unfortunate circumstances, is handed a position as an advisor to a Middle Eastern royal (Alexander Siddig of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Damon’s strength is playing boyish charm with depth; he has a prep-school cute face with just enough vague concern built in to comfort audiences normally resistant to Hollywood pretty boys. Here, though, he’s required to play an adult with a wife and children and a serious job requiring carefully weighted moral equivocating. His sweet-natured appeal–which he was able to twist to his advantage as the wrenchingly creepy Tom Ripley–just doesn’t mesh with the anguished frustration he’s supposed to be expressing.
Clooney may have no more screen time than the other players, but walking out of the theater, it is his performance that sticks. As a CIA spook based roughly on real-life agent Robert Baer, Clooney shreds his tailored big-screen sheen with a scraggly beard, unkempt grey hair, and a sizable middle-aged paunch. Even before his character is beaten, he looks beaten down, wrung dry by a life of deception and all too aware of the inherent dangers of his profession–a ragged blend of jittery knowingness and creeping paranoia.
By now an icon of middlebrow Hollywood liberalism, Clooney sensibly avoids the self-righteous grandstanding that polluted this year’s earlier multinational political thriller, The Constant Gardener. But if Syriana lacks that film’s obnoxious speechifying, it cannot help but end with a left wing sucker punch. Gaghan has claimed to have “no idea” what the film means, but its final scenes, which connect the U.S. oil industry with terrorism, leave little doubt as to his inklings. And although there are nods toward the need for an end to totalitarianism and centralized government control in the Middle East, the movie’s only one-note, purely evil character is a sputtering Washington sleazebag who quotes Milton Friedman on government regulation and rants about the “virtues” of corruption. For all the focus on ambiguity and indirection, there are some gallingly juvenile conclusions on full display.
Syriana clearly wants to be taken seriously as a work of political significance, and along with Good Night, and Good Luck, it is part of George Clooney’s midlife awakening as an actor and filmmaker of socio-political substance–a substance which leaves no doubt as to its devoutly liberal pedigree. And that will certainly please cinema lovers on the left, but it shouldn’t stop the right from enjoying the film’s compelling performances and myriad structural complexities. As politics, Syriana goes down like a jug of crude; as a thriller, it is as thick and rich as the oil around which it revolves.