After a major US oil company loses a lucrative bid for the rights to virgin oil fields in Kazakhstan , an unknown upstart oil exploration firm swoops in to snatch up those same rights at bargain prices. Shortly thereafter, the major oil company buys out the upstart, thus acquiring the oil rights by default. Sounds fishy, doesn’t it? It certainly does to Congress, who launches an investigation. Thus begins a labyrinthine tale of political intrigue and backdoor business deals in director Steven Gaghan’s “Syriana.”
Summarizing “Syriana” is virtually impossible without giving away the plot and the story’s intricacies, but suffice to say that the film has three major threads. The first involves burnt out CIA field operative Bob Barnes (George Clooney, “Ocean’s Eleven”) who gets the wrong end of the stick after taking the proverbial ‘one last job’ before settling down behind a desk. The second involves the aforementioned oil company merger and the subsequent investigation which leads to a legal stand-off between the Justice Department and hotshot oil company attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright, “Shaft”).
The third and last plotline involves a power shift within the royal family of an unnamed oil-rich Middle East Emirate. With the incumbent Emir infirm of body, a struggle for the throne ensues between Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig, best known as Dr. Bashir on “Star Trek: DS9”), a reform-minded moderate who is interested in selling his oil to someone other than the US, and his playboy younger brother Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha, “Bhaji on the Beach”), who is more than happy to be a stooge to the US so long as he can maintain his bling-bling lifestyle.
As these three stories converge, side plots involving the CIA, a radical Islamic cleric and a Geneva-based energy trader all materialize and blend together to form a stunning and busy tapestry suspended by powerful performances. The most common complaint I hear about “Syriana” is that it’s too hard to follow. These people must have expected a brain dead action movie because there was an explosion in the film’s trailer. The movie is actually quite straightforward if you invest even a minimum amount of thought, and keeping track of the various plot threads is aided by Gaghan’s decision to cast recognizable actors in the principle roles.
Alexander Siddig is a standout as the embattled Prince Nasir, effectively conveying a deep-seated frustration at the lack of progress in his country brought about not only by radical Islam, but also by constant meddling from foreign interests. Matt Damon is also excellent as the ambitious energy trader who willingly profits from a family tragedy. Notable supporting performances are turned in by Christopher Plummer (“The Insider”) as the head of the sleazy legal firm handling the oil company merger, and Chris Cooper (“Jarhead”) as the CEO of one of the oil companies.
Perhaps the aspect of the film that gives the average viewer the most difficulty is the looseness with which Gaghan handles all the different storylines. He takes a very broad approach, choosing to dwell more on how each character’s path is affected by each of the others, not so much by direct interaction, but rather by circumstance. As a result, there are many details about each character that are never resolved, but given the film’s structure, they don’t need to be, and whatever information those details are supposed to be pointing out can be easily inferred by the end.
The brilliant complexity, yet total simplicity of the script is what keeps “Syriana” moving. The pacing is excellent and, despite the heavy amount of content, there is hardly a wasted moment. The script’s master stroke is how it sets up its characters, every one of which, no matter how small the part, has an important role to play.
“Syriana’s” subject matter naturally lends itself to plenty of fictitious politicizing. The US government manipulating the internal power struggle of another country to ensure that the country’s government has US interests in mind? That would never happen. The self-righteous righties will dismiss it as a piece of anti-American leftist propaganda, while the limp-wristed lefties will take it as a truthful and scathing indictment of the US government’s corrupt relationship with Big Oil. Quite frankly, if you swap the Middle East with Colombia and oil with cocaine, you’ve got the same storyline as “Clear and Present Danger”, and I don’t recall anyone calling for Tom Clancy to be run out of town.
Given that Gaghan won an Oscar for his script for “Traffic,” it’s not surprising that “Syriana” is constructed in a similar fashion as Soderbergh’s film. But if “Syriana” has one weakness, it’s that it is too much like “Traffic.” From the cut-and-paste structure to the fatalistic ‘business is as business does’ ending, there’s a bit of a retread feel permeating the film that prevents it from standing out fully on its own. And while “Syriana” handles its myriad plot threads with aplomb, by the end you get the feeling that Gaghan wrote one thread too many, and decided to just leave it all in rather than being a bit more judicious in the editing room.
Overall, “Syriana” is an engrossing and delightfully demanding film that brilliantly weaves together fully realized characters into a distant yet instantly recognizable landscape. And for that alone, it deserves to be considered one of the best films of 2005.
Stephen Gaghan (director) / Robert Baer (book), Stephen Gaghan (screenplay)
CAST: Kayvan Novak …. Arash
George Clooney …. Bob Barnes
Amr Waked …. Sheik Agiza
Christopher Plummer …. Dean Whiting
Jeffrey Wright …. Bennett Holiday
Chris Cooper …. Jimmy Pope
Matt Damon …. Bryan Woodman
Amanda Peet …. Julie Woodman