The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, October 13, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Syriana

Originally published 12/15/05
Full review behind the jump


: Stephen Gaghan
: Stephen Gaghan, suggested by the book See No Evil: True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism by Robert Baer
: Michael Nozik, Georgia Kacandes, Jennifer Fox
: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Alexander Siddig, Kayvan Novak, Mazhar Munir, Nadim Sawalha, Akbar Kurtha, Sonnell Dadral, Tim Blake Nelson

Some will complain about the plot of
Syriana – saying it is too opaque or complex. I admit you have to wear your thinking cap in this wide-ranging political thriller, and be prepared to deduce what is happening from careful observation without the movie grabbing you by the lapels and dictating it to you very slowly. But the story is really very simple: it is about the chain reaction of events triggered when the progressive, Western-educated son (Alexander Siddig) of a Middle Eastern emir (Nadim Sawahla) decides to do the capitalistically-proper thing and sell his country’s oil to the highest bidder, when the highest bidder happens to be China, not the United States.

As the movie tracks the repercussions from the corridors of power through the shadowy world of espionage down to the employees on the street, we gain a thorough appreciation for just how much of the world’s legal, financial and military business bends to the need of getting as big a share of this dwindling resource as possible. And under the mature and confident direction of filmmaker Stephen Gaghan (who used a similar approach in his screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s
Traffic), we get a rich tapestry of characters and a heaping dose of paranoid suspense in the bargain. In the end the ins-and-outs of the plot don’t matter so much as the overall impression we get – that we are at war over this stuff, and have been for years, and as with all wars it’s tainted the humanity of every soldier.

Four primary plot threads hold Syriana together. Starting from the bottom – in Emir Hamed Al-Subaai’s country, the exodus of the American company puts all the technicians out of work. They are the faraway modern equivalent of John Steinbeck’s “company store” Okies – refugees from a broken land living in clustered temporary housing and dependent on their employer for everything, including the papers that allow them to stay in the country. Where before young Arash (Kayvan Novak) dreamed of putting away enough money to bring his mother over, now he’s unemployed and cast loose in an obtuse bureaucracy that seems to have no use for him anymore. The only place he finds peace and dignified treatment is in a local mosque, where they embrace him as a brother, teach him that the next world will be better than this one, and offer that they might even have a way he can get there and do them a little favor in the process.

Then we have weathered CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney), an expert in the street-level politicking of the Middle East, who has dutifully sold rockets to this person and arranged the assassination of that person for many years without concerning himself with how they affect the motion of the larger wheels of the world. Only now, as he begins to sense those wheels turning against him, does he begin to question whose interests he’s been protecting all these years.

And there’s always the Emir, who has two sons: the afore-mentioned Nasir, who has seen how a civilized society behaves and is tired of buying Rolls Royces by the baker’s dozen while his people starve, and the younger Meshal (Akbar Kurtha). Meshal is incurious, immature and dangerous – but he is willing to entertain the American oil companies that flatter him. This one fact is enough that who will succeed the ailing Emir is seriously in question. Allied with Nasir is Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a young turk from an energy trading company who suffers a horrible tragedy at the Emir’s party and is offered a chance to profit by it. He does wrestle with this quandary but, seeing Nasir’s populist instincts, soon gets a gleam in his eyes and paves a long road with his good intentions right up to the point where he is essentially organizing a military coup through his Blackberry.

And back in Washington, D.C., an ambitious lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) at a powerful firm is assigned to do some diligence on a proposed merger between two oil companies. The larger, Connex, lost that oil deal to China. The smaller, Killen, just miraculously landed rights in Kazakhstan (how is a question the movie dangles but has no time to answer), and Connex wants Killen’s new business to make up its loss. The lawyer, Bennett Holiday, navigates a world where those who bray loudest about competition and the free market are the first to turn to cronyism and whine for government intervention (armed, if necessary) when the free market actually results in them losing a competition, and crimes committed by the powerful are not to be prosecuted but simply noted in a folder somewhere until a suit or two must be perp-walked to keep up appearances.

Holiday spars with the Justice Department and tries to understand the cryptic encouragements of senior partner Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), part of a mysterious group called the Committee to Liberate Iran, members of which manage to be in every meeting of consequence. Perhaps they consider this simply a higher form of capitalism – they deserve to get away with it because they have the means to get away with it, or as oilman Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) puts it: “Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm…Corruption is why we win.” and you must think long and hard about whom he means when he says “we”.

It has taken me that long just to set up the playing field for you, and there are heaps more enriching characters and details I can’t spend time on. Gaghan’s screenplay, inspired by a non-fiction CIA memoir, is an extraordinary work of construction. I think the goal is not to show us the big picture but immerse us in the sensation that the picture has outgrown all comprehension. The barons and kingmakers act as they always do, amassing power by the means which have worked for them in the past and sparing little thought for those lower on the food chain whose lives are uprooted by their maneuvers.

It’s a sober and engrossing work all the way through, Gaghan shoots it with nervous verisimilitude, including a skin-crawling torture sequence. He also makes smart use of locations, not emphasizing them for spectacle’s sake but just letting them exist behind the drama, lending authority to his geopolitical argument. The cast lacks the usual narrative crutches and so must simply embody their characters and trust the scene’s been set well – it’s an all-around triumph: Damon has the brash confidence of Graham Greene’s Quiet American, while Clooney wears the hooded glower of a man who has seen too much to believe there’s people out there driven by actual ideology. Wright has the trickiest job among the leads as a man who keeps his motives close and his head low, quietly and thoroughly amasses information, and waits for the moment when he can most benefit from doing his job well. And the shaping of the destitute Arash is not celebrated or demonized, simply observed for how frighteningly effective it is in a culture that has a lot of Arashs running around.

For its intelligence alone I can recommend Syriana, and for its guts in having a point of view on a very nasty and complicated topic. Gaghan presents us essentially with a story where you can root for no one – we might sympathize with Barnes’ sense of self-preservation but he hardly has a clean slate in this drama. It’s like a perpetual tragedy where kingdoms go crashing down, but with no finality, for with that much money in the oil-rich desert there’s always someone willing to pick up the crown and play king again. The only end will be the one ominously indicated by Woodman: “It’s running out.


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