Like 2000's "Traffic
," "Syriana" juggles a complex web of a plot and an expansive amount of characters and locations at the benefit of tackling a huge political subject that affects everyone in the world in one way or another. "Traffic
" took a long, hard look at the war on drugs and came up with a sprawling masterpiece of a motion picture that was educational, complicated and heartbreakingly humane. "Syriana," which has much of the same behind-the-scenes support ("Traffic
" screenwriter Stephen Gaghan has been promoted to director, while "Traffic
" helmer Steven Soderbergh takes to the producing post), isn't nearly as good a film, perhaps because the oil industry lacks the inherent drama that one can find in the lives of those who fight, sell, trade, or are destroyed by drugs each day.
The urgency within what "Traffic
" portrayed was enriched further by a nearly three-hour running time that cared about its characters as much as its messages, and developed both in equal measures. "Syriana," at nearly an hour shorter and with a cast ofwell, a big castis perpetually fascinating on a more cursory level. Many of the characters are interesting individuals for what they stand for or how they are portrayedChristopher Plummer (2005's "Must Love Dogs
") chews the scenery to brilliantly spiteful effect as Dean Whitting, the power-obsessed head of Killen, one of the companies involved in an oil mergerbut remain two-dimensional figures who do not connect on an emotional level with the audience. The one exception is Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a workaholic energy analyst living in Switzerland with a wife (Amanda Peet) and children (Nicholas Art, Steven Hinkle) whose family is suddenly struck by tragedy. By getting to spend the time with Bryan on an intimate level, both outside of his job and during it, he makes the biggest impact and is the central figure in the film that demands attention and sympathy.
The event from which all the involved parties in "Syriana" circle is the unlikely merger of two prominent American oil companies, Connex and Killen, which ricochets across the economy. When passionate and dedicated Middle East CIA operative Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is suddenly let go from his position after being seen as a liability, he soon finds out just how expendable his work was with them. Other characters figuring into the story include Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a Washington, D.C. attorney hired to cover up the shadier side of the merge and grappling with the unsavory choices he must make to do that, and a young migrant worker, Wasim (Mazhar Munir), who turns to an extremist group after being laid off from a Persian Gulf oil station.
"Syriana" is nearly impossible to summarize for two reason: (1) because its scope is so encompassing, and (2) because writer-director Stephen Gaghan does an unsatisfactory job of laying out his admittedly provocative ideas in a way that will be accessible to the average viewer. The film gets so twisted up in the politics of the situations and the behind-closed-doors dirty dealings that even the most studious audience member paying extra-special close attention will at some point be unsure of what is going on, and why. Surely there could have been a way to more clearly tell the story without dumbing things down and spelling them out. It is a testament to Gaghan's sharp filmmaking prowess that he has made an occasionally incomprehensible work that still manages to be captivating and consistently watchable.
Filled from top to bottom by talent of the first orderaside from the aforementioned Christopher Plummer, making the best impressions are Matt Damon (2004's "The Bourne Supremacy
"), doing mature, note-perfect work as a financial advisor who, whether he wants to think of it this way or not, stands to make a huge profit off of his son's untimely death, and George Clooney (2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck
"), riveting as an underground operative who feels angry and betrayed when the CIA turns its back on him. All of the actors, in fact, could make reading the phone book an edge-of-your-seat ride, and therefore they ably rise above roles that require pronunciation of tricky business jargon but little in the way of character meat.
To say that "Syriana" is ambitious would be a vast understatement. To say it's a commercially viable film would be a vast overstatement. Nevertheless, when the picture does stumble, it does so while confronting some very big ideas, which is more admirable than not trying at all. More development from all angles could have benefitted the explosive conclusion, and if you see the film, ask yourself two things: how could Clooney's Bob Barnes have known what was going to happen at the end, if, in fact, he did know, and why does he just stand there and stare at Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) during this pivotal moment? The details may be murky, but "Syriana" is still worth recommending for adult audiences who don't make it a habit of paying ten dollars for a movie ticket only to have such a bad bladder that they have to go to the bathroom an hour into said movie. Leave this film for two minutes and you may be lost for the duration. "Syriana" pulsates with cynicism in its portrayal of corporate greed, but this uncompromising viewpoint is as necessary and topical as it is bleakly honest.