Lumpy and bearish, his clean lines hidden under a jowly beard and 40 pounds of thick middle he put on for the role, George Clooney is an apt visual symbol for his latest film, Syriana, which is a compelling drama partially obscured by excess.
Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who also penned the script for Steven Soderbergh's drug-trade drama Traffic, Syriana draws on the multiple storylines and jittery camera style of the previous film, but focuses on a new addiction, the ravenous global market for oil.
Gaghan is interested in portraying a system, rather than tracing out a storyline with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It's an ambitious aim, one that explains the director's appetite for crosscutting narratives and enough actors to stage a full-blown musical production. Gaghan presents his viewers with a welter of Gulf princes, Washington lawyers, financial analysts, madrassa students, and CIA agents before drawing out a representative from each group, each struggling to make sense of the web into which Gaghan has cast him.
Syriana's cast does a fine job of humanizing Gaghan's complex material. Alexander Siddig plays the reform-minded Prince Nasir, chafing against U.S. pressure to sell his country's oil at cut-rate prices; Jeffrey Wright portrays a tightly wound lawyer brokering a merger between two oil companies eager to break ground in Kazakhstan; Matt Damon's financial analyst capitalizes on a family tragedy to become an adviser to Nasir; and Mazhar Munir's young Wasim finds relief from discrimination and poverty in the serene halls of a radical madrassa in Nasir's country. Each is an uncertain hero figure, but none more so than Clooney, whose CIA operative Bob Barnes shambles through the film, learning too late what his body already knows -- that his ideals have long been lost, that the country he thought he was serving turned against him years ago.
It's a monumental betrayal, one that is echoed in very different paternal pairings in the film. Through neglect, fear, avarice, drunkenness, and even an inability to recognize the harsh realities of the present world, fathers disappoint their sons in Syriana, leaving them without a mooring in Gaghan's perturbing, bewildering world.
Gaghan devotes much of his film trying to unravel a system of corruption, tracing the thickly interconnected skeins of collusion that connect Washington politician to Texas corporate oil interests to corrupt Gulf governments to … after the first thirty minutes, I was wishing desperately for a whiteboard so I could diagram the multiple spheres of influence, the shifting alliances, the intersecting histories. Like Barnes, I found myself wondering, Can someone tell me what the hell is going on here?
No. That is Syriana's greatest strength, and will likely become its most-criticized trait. Gaghan wants to force his audience to live through a dramatized state of contemporary being -- one in which there is no omniscient eye/I to explain what is happening in our world, where we are lied to through overt and covert means. The film offers a tantalizing hint at hidden depths. Loosely based on Robert Baer's tellingly titled CIA memoir, See No Evil, it speeds through terrorism and war, torture and missing missiles, and offers up quiet Americans and loud Texans. But the film doesn't cohere to an overarching conspiracy theory or peel back the curtain on Oz. Nor does it offer a real hero; each of the characters has unclear motives and mingles idealism and greed. What's Wright's lawyer really up to? Does Damon's character truly feel the spark of idealism, or is he just cashing in? As for Clooney's character, he's truly a hero for our times: Barnes is an assassin.
Gaghan walks a fine line between capturing our contemporary existential uncertainty and devolving into thematic incoherence. With his hatchety editing and jumble of storylines, he sometimes veers off that edge. But he never dumbs down his film for the audience -- he assumes we can see the racism behind a politely off-hand refusal to shake a lawyer's hand, that our brains will cue an "uh-oh" when another character is compared to the would-be Iranian reformer Mossadeq, deposed by British intelligence and the CIA. Gaghan drops an occasional bald clue, as when one figure asks about Nasir's country, “Are we gonna have a pro-Western, pro-business government?” Because if there is any rule to the games Syriana depicts, it's that cynicism is the currency we trade in.
Such stark clues are truly the exception, however, the occasional lifeline thrown in as we're about to drown in the conspiracies, the florid excesses, those forty extra pounds. With his unnervingly smart if uneven film, Gaghan obscures to make us look harder, but offers up only glimpses of insight -- an experience that mirrors only too closely our relationship to our political realities today.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.