Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is a whirlwind of ambition and outrage, a searing indictment of the oil industry as a political and economic juggernaut that is just fictional enough to avoid defamation suits but grounded in reality just enough to ring more than a few bells. If Gaghan overreaches, it is because he errs on the side of nuance rather than simplification; if an individual subplot lacks the impact it may have had, the flaw is overshadowed by the intricate way the stories converge and interconnect. Though far from a knee-jerk anti-capitalist screed, the film powerfully addresses the great moral price people must realistically pay to amass enormous wealth in today’s world. The idea is that nothing is insulated from anything else, and when big business meets politics meets foreign policy, things — all ethical boundaries among them — go boom.
First, a word of caution: Syriana requires your undivided attention. Of course, every film deserves your undivided attention if at all possible, but Syriana downright demands it; I was fortunate enough to have been cautioned about this in advance, and I willed myself to concentrate on names, faces and obscure plot points. It was absolutely necessary. Gaghan’s screenplay is dense and unforgiving, and his direction offers little in the way of help. No voiceovers; no helpful subtitles beyond ones announcing a location or two; no characters making expository proclamations. Watch and listen; keep track; pay attention.
If it wasn’t for its political relevance, Syriana might be more lightly taken as a crackerjack corporate and political thriller, like something Tom Clancy might have cooked up if he ever calmed down. Though attempting to describe all of the plot’s ins and outs here would be pointless and probably futile, the basic notion is that two brothers — one (Alexander Siddig) an independent, level-headed, Oxford-educated reformer and the other (Akbar Kurtha) a spineless toady — are fighting for the succession to Iran’s emir, and everyone, from the CIA and the United States government to oil companies big and small, from bigshot Washington lawyers to scuzzy lobbyists, from American derivatives traders to Pakistani oil rig workers, has a stake in the outcome. The movie weaves back and forth among these characters, and shockingly no one is incidental or there merely for color; everyone ultimately plays a role, and more shockingly still this feels fully organic rather than contrived.
What Gaghan brings out most forcefully, perhaps, is that all of these players have varied and diverse interests, but they all inevitably combine to create destruction and festering corruption. The aggrieved Pakistani oil rig workers I mentioned ultimately become suicide bombers in training; they have no interest in pipelines or oil fortunes or even, really, who becomes emir. And yet they play right into the hands of those who would exploit the oil “crisis,” such as it is, for their own gains, be they economic, political or otherwise. Everything feeds on everything else, and the winner, in the end, will be the one with the best sense of where the sickness begins and ends, and how to best get in on the action.
This sort of project is a tough string of balancing acts for any filmmaker, but Gaghan, in his sophomore directing effort (he wrote the conceptually similar Traffic), pulls it off. Mostly, I was grateful for the story, which rewards careful attention and refuses to bow to the pressure to make everything easily digestible. And rather than being an enormous mass of characters and details brought together by the sheer force of a strong-willed screenwriter, Syriana is rather elegant in combining the large-scale political machinations with sparse but effective character moments right up to the spectacular climax.
The film has the most difficult part of its mission down cold — it has a comfortable handle on the labyrinthine plot, a clear vision of what it’s trying to do, and a gameplan for bringing it all together. Where it slips from time to time — its only significant flaw, really — is in the execution of individual storylines, which sometimes seem a bit arbitrary in the way they play out with respect to the fates of individual characters. But against Syriana‘s vital, riveting, globe-hopping backdrop, it hardly matters. This is an awfully impressive movie.