Photo by Glen Wilson

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

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 | 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

| Released by Warner Bros. Pictures | At the Grove and AMC Santa Monica 7

To read Scott Foundas' interview with Syriana director Stphen Gaghan, click

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