"Syriana", writer/ director Stephen Gaghan's follow-up to his Oscar winning screenplay for "Traffic", is an involving, complicated look at the oil industry. It is a very good film, but you are going to have to work at it, paying attention to every moment, in order to keep track of all of the characters, events and manipulation being depicted.
Bob (George Clooney), an undercover agent, sells two missiles to a contact in Iran. One of the missiles is promptly taken away by an unknown second party., the other weapon explodes as the man who purchased it, drives away. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) works for a small investment firm in Geneva, Switzerland. His firm is trying to become the advisors for the aging, ready to retire Emir and his two ambitious sons. Bryan, his wife, Julie (Amanda Peet) and their two sons are invited to the Emir's birthday party in Mallorca, Spain. After tragedy befalls his family, Bryan's company wins the coveted contract advising the Emir's oldest son. Bennett Holliday (Jeffrey Wright), a lawyer with a Washington, DC firm, is put in charge of scrutinizing the impending merger of two large oil firms, one of which is owned by Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), a good old Texas boy who doesn't seem to really want the merger. Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), a high level advisor in the government, quietly pulls strings to make sure the "right" son becomes the new Emir.
All of these characters are involved in seemingly different storylines, and they don't really interact for a significant portion of the film. As you watch a few moments with Clooney in Iran, Beirut or Baltimore or a few moments with Damon in Geneva, Mallorca or the desert, Gaghan helps us to learn a little about these characters and their involvement in a story with a huge scope, spanning many countries around the globe. Towards the end when the storylines begin to overlap, and all of the machinations begin to make sense, you get the sense that the director has prepared us well, or as well as anyone could, to understand how all of these different people, all of these different factors, are involved in the story.
Gaghan, whose debut directorial effort was the rightfully ignored thriller "Abandoned" starring Benjamin Bratt and Katie Holmes, follows that up with this epic about the oil industry. Gaghan works very hard to keep the audience in the loop, helping them keep track of characters, the locations and the action. In many ways, it is very similar to "Traffic"; multiple characters, multiple locations, storylines that don't necessarily overlap. Gaghan seems to have adopted the style of Steven Soderbergh, the director of "Traffic". There is a lot of handheld camera work, to create a sense of immediacy and closeness to all of the action. Thankfully, as Gaghan introduces the various characters, type appears on screen identifying their location, helping us stay grounded in the action, helping us keep track. If you liked "Traffic", you should also appreciate this new film. If not, stay away. I know that a lot of handheld camera work can drive some people batty, but in this case, it really works well in service of the story.
If even half of the manipulations presented in this film are based on actual truth, it is no wonder the oil industry is so filled with corruption. The people who control this industry are wealthy beyond our comprehension and they want to make sure we stay that way and are willing to do anything, including changing the course of another country's government, covering up covert arm sales, hiding bribes, etc.
As the film moves from one character to the next, one location to another across the globe, and introduces more and more people, we begin to recognize there is a common thread throughout; everyone is greedy. Some of the people don't necessarily start out that way, but they are soon corrupted. The greedier they are in the beginning, the richer they are in the end. The most interesting moments, for me, are when a couple of characters give in to their greed, and the audience realizes this for the first time. The way they give in to this temptation is quite shocking and memorable.
With such a large ensemble, and each of the major stars on screen for less than thirty minutes or so, it is difficult for them to create a performance that is anything more than serviceable to the story. This isn't a bad thing, but people who are expecting George Clooney and Matt Damon to share a lot of screen time, will be disappointed. Clearly, each of the actors was interested in getting this film made and didn't want to be the "star". The supporting cast is more successful, simply because they have less baggage accompanying them. If you see Clooney or Damon, you expect them to carry the film. When they don't, it is a little bit of a let down. Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Nelson, Christopher Plummer and Alexander Siddig as Prince Nasir Al-Subaai, the Emir's older son, all leave a memorable impression in a very short period of time.
"Syriana" is a film that is trying to educate us through the medium of drama. It isn't a documentary, but a lot of what is depicted probably has happened or will happen. Because of this, you will probably be more informed, more skeptical the next time you hear a story about an oil company receiving exclusive drilling rights in some far off country, the next time you hear a President from Texas inform the public about the rational behind increasing oil prices or the rational behind going to war in a small country in the Middle East.
"Syriana" is a film worthy of your attention and interest.