Trying to keep track of the multiplying plot lines in Stephen Gaghan's new political thriller Syriana, I found myself wondering whether this enormously ambitious writer-director was trying to sum up our anxious times, murder traditional narrative, or work up some aesthetic equivalent of a coke high. Seldom have form, content and cultural sensibility been so excitably aligned as in this fascinating, exasperating film about the unholy marriage of power politics and global business. Gaghan, who last rattled our bones with his Oscar-winning screenplay for Steven Soderbergh's international drug-trade thriller, Traffic, again whirls us around the world's political hot spots, repeatedly yanking us back home to witness the lethal antics of American power brokers in pursuit of the rapidly depleting commodity that has led us into gratuitous wars and dubious alliances with nasty regimes—and, Gaghan implies, brought terror to our doorsteps. Syriana does for oil what Traffic did for drugs—lays it squarely in the laps of the damn Yanks.
As a director, Gaghan has soaked up much of his skittish shooting style from Soderbergh. Like Traffic, Syriana, which was executive-produced by Soderbergh and George Clooney's Section Eight production company, is filmed with hand-held cameras and copious cutting between short, staccato scenes. But it's a glossier, more panoramic affair—the cinematographer is Robert Elswit, who shot Clooney's urbane Good Night, and Good Luck—that switches giddily, if I'm keeping score right, between the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., the oil fields of Kazakhstan, Tehran's criminal underworld, an unidentified oil-rich Persian Gulf state, and a five-star, Arab-owned resort in sunny Spain. Gaghan, who has knocked about the world a bit himself, unleashes an indigestible cast of characters who range from the shamelessly power-mad (corporate fat cats, lawyers, oil sheiks, government higher-ups and other shadowy figures) to the desperately powerless (itinerant workers trawling the Middle East for hardscrabble oil-field labor), with a few unfortunates bearing opaque job titles caught in the middle.
All but lost in the crowd is Bob Barnes (Clooney, deglamorized again and loving it), a mid-level CIA agent loosely based on Robert Baer, whose memoir See No Evil inspired the movie. Chubby and rumpled in an elderly windbreaker, his features buried in a shaggy full beard, Bob works the frontline of international espionage, a faceless blender-in among Iranian arms dealers and Islamic fundamentalists in a world where exploding cars and backroom torture come with the territory. In the fine old tradition of movie snoops, Bob's private life is a shambles. He's estranged from his wife and barely available to his college-bound son (Max Minghella). Even on the job, he cuts an anachronistic figure in a downsized, remote-control CIA where "intelligence" is picked up via Internet chatter and "intervention" takes the form of long-range missiles tracked by computer from gleaming high-rise offices in Washington to the desert dunes of the Middle East. But Bob's greatest weakness shines out of his soulful brown eyes. He's a believer—a man who thinks he's serving his country—which makes him a quaint, if twisted idealist in a system that scorns idealists as losers. We get the heroes we deserve, I guess: Bob is an assassin, whose final assignment before he gets kicked upstairs to a cushy desk job is to bump off Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), heir apparent to the throne of the unnamed Gulf State and a reformer who wants to stop selling oil cheap to the Americans because the Chinese will pay top dollar, allowing him to revitalize his country's ailing economic infrastructure. When the job is aborted, Bob is brutally brought to understand that his superiors have been deceiving him for years about the true purpose of his activities.
Lest you fear this is not enough plot, great chunks of Syriana are given over to the machinations of creepy Beltway bedfellows, with corporate types consistently trumping the pols as they forge uneasy mergers and jockey for hegemony over Middle East oil. Gaghan's screenplay is crisp and sassy; his writing has the fierce clarity and erudition of the self-taught intellectual. Still, it's hard to give individual life to a cast of characters this big without flattening them into types. Flawlessly played though they are by, among others, Christopher Plummer, Matt Damon, William Hurt, Chris Cooper and Viola Davis (a vinegary stitch as a Condi-like deputy national security adviser), they come off as a quietly insidious but undifferentiated lot, mere mouthpieces for the various arms of evil empire and its hapless discontents. Perhaps the homogenization of the corporate-political nexus is the whole point here, but from a dramatic standpoint, there's something bloodless and uninvolving about Syriana's Quiet Americans.
Gaghan draws his Arab characters with a more discriminating intelligence, and in a lumbering effort to breathe emotional life into the movie, peppers the action with parallel father-son dramas that cut across lines of race, class and geography. It may be a liberal indulgence that Syriana offers us more sympathetic Arab power brokers than it does good American ones. For one thing, we don't hear too much about Persian Gulf heads of state who are bursting with zeal for democratic reform. For another, the movie is disturbingly dewy-eyed about suicide bombers, by no means all of whom are alienated children of poverty and discrimination. Still, as movies go, it's a breath of fresh air to see any Arabs at all positively depicted. And given the almost daily revelations about covert operations in the CIA and the cozy relations between the Bush administration and the multinationals, it's hard to argue with Gaghan's central thesis that America has the most to answer for in the current bloody war between East and West.
If Syriana seems fashionably up-to-the-minute in putting its finger on post-9/11 anxieties, its style and sensibility hark back to the paranoid moviemaking of the early 1970s. The stage has grown more global, the players more far-flung, the technology of war more friendly to special effects. But the song—the crushing of idealism, however tainted, by heedless powermongers—remains the same. It's not just the skittering style of Syriana that gives you the jitters, but the image of a world where the separation of powers has become a bitter joke. Gaghan condemns it, but he also gets off on all the power plays. More troubling yet is that I can't tell whether Syriana is a deeply pessimistic movie or a deeply cynical one. Politically and morally, there's a critical difference. For if pessimism of the intellect can always cohabit with optimism of the will, cynicism is its own dead end.
SYRIANA WAS Written and directed by STEPHEN GAGHAN, based on the book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism by ROBERT BAER; Produced by JENNIFER FOX, MICHAEL NOZIK and GEORGIA KACANDES. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.
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