At two different points during SYRIANA, two different men in traditional Arab robes sits on a floor surrounded by two different sets of rapt listeners sitting in a circle. Each explains with perfect conviction how to make the world a better place. One is an eloquent imam in a poverty-stricken madrassa, advocating a return to the religious fundamentalism of several centuries ago, the other is a western-educated, prince preaching the liberal philosophy of the 21st century. Each is convinced that he is speaking an unassailable truth, and yet one that is mutually exclusive to the other. To add to the complexity, both want the same thing, the west to leave their country, not just the military, but the oil companies who are pulling strings everywhere. In addition, and to add to the complexity that is the hallmark of SYRIANA, those truths are mutually exclusive to the other truths expressed and passionately defended in the course of the film, and which truth resonates at first with any one person in the audience has more to do with the baggage he or she came in with than it does with anything approaching an absolute. That is what is so brilliant and so maddening about Stephen Gaghan’s film. There are no easy answers and innocents with pure hearts are caught in the crossfire of the cross purposes. Gaghan, bless him, doesn’t believe in dumbing things down.
The screenwriter drops us into the middle of the action, or rather, actions, and then sets a breakneck pace as the chaos on screen that reflects all too accurately the chaos of the real world, threatens to overwhelm us. It’s a bold move that forces the audience to find its own way in the film’s worldview. It also sets the jittery mood, where betrayal is a matter of when, not if, and the only question is who will do in whom. He shoots in a deceptively informal, hand-held style that brings an even stronger sense of immediacy to the proceedings, and he elicits similarly informal, immediate performances adding to the sense that history, not a film, is unfolding, and a hidden history at that. He also does the unexpected, creating correspondences between each of these characters that tie their seemingly separate worlds together with something as mundane as French fries or as universal as the ups and downs of family life.
Four stories intertwine. Tired CIA veteran Bob Barnes (George Clooney) slogging through the morass of the Middle East tracking a bomb that got away from him and ends up being played, by whom he’s not quite sure; Bennett Holiday (buttoned-up Jeffrey Wright), who is trying to keep his moral compass while brokering a merger between two Texas oil companies to create what is, in effect, the world’s 23rd largest economy, albeit one held in private hands; ambitious energy broker Brian Woodman, played with wide-eyed canniness by Matt Damon, who is one of a dozen other such company executives trying to get an in with the Emir of a country with the last great tract of oil reserves; and Wasim Ahmen Khan (Mazhar Munir), the son of a guest worker in that country whose job, and residency status, has disappeared with an oil contract that the Emir has given to China instead of a U.S. company.
It’s a Byzantine maze of cause and effect, the former tightly wrapped up in the latter in a sort of symbiotic death grip that is grotesquely fascinating to behold. No moment is more emblematic than that of Christopher Plummer as an eminence grise of the status quo talking to the second son of an emir who controls enough oil to attract the attention of the west. Plummer shifts effortlessly from trivial small talk while sipping coffee on said second son’s sumptuously appointed yacht, to a precisely calculated personal affront, all but emasculating his victim, then, offering him his heart’s desire while all with the same seductive purr. There’s no doubt of who is in control and always will be. For contrast by way of an object lesson for the audience, there is Brian proposing a new way of doing business to the emir’s heir-apparent other son (Alexander Siddig in a breakout performance that is intelligent, charismatic, and multi-layered), that will give him control of his country’s oil profits and insure a stable infrastructure for that unnamed country for generations to come.
Gaghan effectively builds the action to a fevered pitch, all the while peppering the script with facts, some seemingly trivial until the implications sink in, such as more money having been spent on the syndication rights to “Seinfeld” than on the last presidential election. By the time SYRIANA reaches its savage heart-stopping climax, what transpires is as shocking as it is inevitable. This is a film that will provoke both tears and outrage in equal measure, but will also do something more long lasting. Underscored by what should be the tagline for the film spoken by a good-old-boy Texas oil man, “Corruption is why we win,” it will make filling a car’s gas tank anything but a neutral action.