“Syriana” is the latest film from “Traffic” and “Alamo” scribe Stephen Gaghan, who also assumes the director’s chair to tell this story of big oil and Middle East politics. Based on the book by Robert Baer, “Syriana” juggles a number of plotlines. There’s veteran CIA agent “Bob Barnes” (George Clooney), raising a fuss with the head office over a Stinger missile he let get away from him during a mission. Meanwhile, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), the heir apparent to the throne of an oil-producing Persian Gulf nation, has granted natural gas drilling rights to the Chinese instead of American oil giant Connex, much to that company’s chagrin. This also has consequences for several of Connex’s immigrant field workers (Sonnell Dadral and Mazhar Munir), who now find themselves unemployed and faced with the prospect of being sent back to Pakistan.
Connex’s merger with upstart Texas oil company Killen, which has recently secured lucrative drilling rights in Kazakhstan, has also caught the eye of the Justice Department. Throw in attorney Bennett Holliday (Jeffrey Wright), who’s been brought in to perform due diligence for the company, and energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), who has decided to leverage a family tragedy in order to help Prince Nasir, and you can see that “Syriana” isn’t the sort of movie you want to take too many bathroom breaks in. As in “Traffic,” Gaghan leads us back and forth between these stories, gradually revealing their many connections, bringing most everything together by film’s end.
Sure, it requires some attention, but is “Syriana” as complicated as some people are making it out to be? Only if you find the evening news difficult to follow. Prince Nasir’s country is never named, but is obviously based on Saudi Arabia, and Connex and Killen are fictional, but feel free to substitute the name of your favorite oil company. Besides, the concept of energy corporations exploiting their financial ties with Washington to further their corporate interests abroad shouldn’t come as much of a shock to anyone who’s been paying attention to how our country’s been run for the last 50 years. Indeed, if “Syriana” has one thematic weakness, it’s that nothing we see unfolding onscreen is all that shocking. 30 years ago, a film like this would’ve been hailed as blowing the lid off Big Oil. Today, we’ll acknowledge it with a shrug and a “So what else is new?”
There are some superior performances here, especially Wright and Siddig. Chris Cooper and Tim Blake Nelson are appropriately sleazy as Killen’s CEO and a lobbyist, respectively, and Christopher Plummer – as the head of Holliday’s law firm – is charmingly sinister. Clooney has the central role, however, and the film rests primarily on his newly hefty shoulders (he gained 40 pounds for the role). Clooney is one of those actors, like Jack Nicholson in recent years, who essentially plays variations of himself in everything. However, he surprises you a little bit here, portraying a man haunted by the acts he’s committed. The extra tonnage may not have been entirely necessary, but it contributes to the character’s weariness and paranoia. His 11th hour decision to Do The Right Thing feels a bit pat, but Clooney himself has never been better.
Whether or not you buy the concept of “peak oil,” you can’t argue that our continued dependency on the Mid-East’s black gold continues to produce foreign and domestic policy problems for the United States. As in his previous “current events” effort (and if I may be allowed a small pun) Gaghan traffics in futility: specifically, the futility of fighting big business, the futility of attempting to bring reform to the entrenched monarchies of the Middle East, and the futility of placing much faith in your government. “Syriana” is a bleak and powerful movie, made all the more sobering by how much of it isn’t fiction.