Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Alexander Siddig, Amanda Peet, Tim Blake Nelson, Mazhar Munir, Jamey Sheridan, Peter Gerety, Robert Foxworth. (2005, R, 128 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 9, 2005
Like the saying about the butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world and affecting currents on the other, Syriana shows how the multitentacled quest to control oil supplies in one part of the world can affect (both intentionally and inadvertently) people, lives, and decisions in another. Syriana is the most challenging and uncompromising movie to come out of Hollywood in a long time. Its subject matter has an urgent topicality and its storytelling technique demands that attention be paid. The rewards are substantial, and all the sweeter for having been earned. Like writer-director Gaghan’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay for Traffic in 2000, Syriana is a complexly structured narrative that follows several different characters and storylines that only begin to cohere into one larger story as the movie draws toward its climax. (Steven Soderbergh, who directed Traffic, serves as a producer of Syriana.) Loosely based on Robert Baer’s book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, Syriana is more diffusely focused than Traffic. There are at least four distinct storylines in Syriana, but the characters seem more numerous than in Traffic. You’ll probably never feel completely clear about the activities of and relationships among all the characters, but it’s exactly this tangle that gives Syriana a true-to-life feel. Clooney (also a producer) pudges up and drops the matinee-idol sheen to play Bob, the story’s veteran CIA operative in the Middle East, who is left out to dry by his company handlers. An uncommonly subdued Wright portrays an ambitious D.C. lawyer investigating a proposed merger between two U.S. oil companies, and the venerable but vaguely sinister Plummer plays his boss. Damon is an energy analyst based in Geneva, whose marriage to Peet grows rocky after one of their young sons is accidentally electrocuted in the swimming pool of a powerful Gulf emir, and who is then viewed by his wife as profiting from his son’s death after forming a business alliance with the emir’s reform-minded son (Siddig). The final storyline follows the fate of a young Pakistani migrant worker whose job in the oil fields is obliterated when the emir and one of the U.S. companies seeking to merge sell the field’s drilling rights to the Chinese. It’s a lot to absorb, but no more challenging than following the money trail while reading the morning newspapers, and it’s refreshing to be in the midst of a movie that regards its audience as up to the task. There’s little room for emotion in Syriana (although some small but telling moments are nevertheless there for the taking), but more demonstrable human connections between various characters might have potentially drawn in some of the film’s more reluctant viewers. As a political thriller Syriana has several good moments, plus a torture scene that’s guaranteed to make you wince. One of the most exciting movies of the year, Syriana is like a living tableaux composed from all the stories that lurk just behind the news, the stories that put human faces on the ever-more-precious commodity of oil.