Syriana, an elaborate and byzantine work that is extremely intellectually rewarding yet somewhat dramatically obtuse, connects four different stories and lives, the fates of which revolve around the geopolitics of the Middle East.George Clooney is the harried CIA operative whose experience in Beirut in the 80's makes him a perfect middle-man for various US-controlled manipulations in the region; Matt Damon plays a financial analyst who has been living a life of luxury and ease in Switzerland and now falls for the beckoning call of oil barons, at costs both professional and personal; Jeffrey Wright is the lawyer investigating the merger of two oil firms whose collective economic power will rival that of most Western European countries and Mazhar Munir is the young oil-field worker who is lured to the call of fundamentalist Islam, not so much for its philosophical or theological depth, nor even for its promise of paradise, but rather as the only viable alternative to a life of opression, poverty and servitude.
The film is remarkably intelligent and labyrinthine, especially for a Hollywood films with such a name cast. Based on the non-fiction work “See No Evil” by CIA operative Rober Baer the film raises a host of cultural and moral questions and concerns that have come to define our post 9/11 world. It is to director/screenwriter's Stephen Gaghan's credit that he never pretends to know any of the answers. His service as an artist is rather to sharpen our thinking and our critique of US government and corporate involvement in the region and to what extent neo-liberal capitalism thrives on exacerbating the opressive regime of figures who are willing to go along with the Washington Consensus.
Even though the film is incisive, intelligent and technically masterful it often flounders in its thematic and dramatic content, especially in the first hour or so. Gaghan's direction and storytelling are so schematic and overly blueprinted that his characters often seem at the service of the larger point being illustrated. This is not to say that there is not emotional depth and complexity to these characters, simply that these elements lie almost solely in the hands of the masterful actors who bring them to life rather than the screenplay or direction. This is especially true of George Clooney whose performance is astoundingly nuanced, even when weighed alongside the work of such masters as Christopher Plummer and Chris Cooper. The reason for the film's emotional and dramatic detachment seems primarily to be the overly self-serious tone that Gaghan establishes early on. The film obviously does not call for levity but perhaps a more sensitive approach to the human dimension of this tragedy would have allowed Gaghan to get past the sense that the world these people inhabit is nothing but the combination of psychological, political and cultural nihilism (such a world only exists in certain Hollywood films and a 17-year old's reading of French existentialism). Watching the film I found myself wishing for the kind of layers and depth that made Gaghan's script for Soderbergh's Traffic such a masterpiece, such as the relationship between Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman or the strange quirks and mannerisms of Benicio Del Toro's suffering Mexican policeman. Life is more complex than political machinations that can be mapped out in a Washington Post article and hitting some of those more subtle notes would have made Syriana a stronger work.
The film should be see and savored, though, all shortcomings aside, as a great contribution to serious discussion about America's involvement in shaping the infrastructure of the Middle-East, both for good but mostly for bad. The second half of the film is especially effective in conveying the destructive potentials of the combination of rampant capitalism and religious fundamentalism that have come to define life in most of the Middle-East. Interestingly enough, the political and cultural elements of the film are heightened as Gaghan starts relying a bit more on the conventions of the trhiller genre, especially after a gut-wrenching torture scene that had me reaching for not one but two pillows to hide behind. As the tension mounts so does the fatalism. Though we hope against hope that good and justice will prevail we know full well that they most likely will not. In its final moments Syriana pretty much sums up the despair and hopelessness of a region of the world whose citizens have been at the mercy of opressive colonialism for centuries, first that of Imperial Europe and now of the US-led capitalist coalition.