At the end of “Syriana,” when a credit pops up telling viewers that what they have just seen was not, in fact, a non-fiction film, it is truly shocking.
Never has a fictional film been so convincing in its reality. The complex and complete world pieced together by writer-director Stephen Gaghan is what makes this political thriller about the race for oil dominance in the Middle East so successful. Like Gaghan’s Academy Award-winning screenplay for 2001’s “Traffic,” this film focuses on intertwining stories and characters layered over and over again in an environment made all too real by the writer’s ability to research international conflict and make it human.
“Syriana,” details the fight to the death over oil in the Middle East and beyond, told through the eyes of a CIA agent working there (George Clooney), an energy analyst for an oil power brokerage firm (Matt Damon) and a lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) representing a massive U.S. oil company that is about to merge with another massive oil company. Adding to the intrigue are the stories of Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), a Middle-Eastern royal seemingly at conflict with the direction of his oil-producing country, and an honest young man from the region lured by religious fundamentalists.
Everyone had different priorities. Clooney’s CIA agent Bob Barnes is in the Middle East as a workingman, protecting U.S. interests there by any means necessary. Damon’s energy analyst persona changes from wide-eyed optimism to opportunist following a family tragedy that threatens his marriage. Wright’s lawyer must balance what he knows to be wrong with what he knows he must do to move along yet another corporate merger.
The two Middle-Eastern characters bring the viewer right to those being affected perhaps the most directly. The young man is one of the first jobless victims of the merger Wright is helping to negotiate, and Al-Subaai’s kingdom works with Damon’s character on planning for perhaps a better future, all the while under threat by Clooney’s CIA. Wright’s companies make phone calls to Al-Subaai’s father, and the plot is then linked.
Stylistically, the film works on several levels. Its breakneck pace at points, coupled with its slow start, produces a staggered speed that makes the film unpredictable. The film’s spastic editing. The film is almost difficult to follow.
The plot does not help, and that is fantastic. Throughout the movie names are dropped left and right. Companies are mentioned once and then forgotten, yet they remain plot points. Characters who are rarely named are key, so the viewer must work hard to catch up.
Siddig’s idealistic prince who might lose his kingdom because he is not enough of a “company man” is a great parallel to the conflict of Wright’s character. The look of panic on Siddig’s face at the film’s climax shows a dramatic shift in this confident-yet-hurt leader.
Following the aforementioned family tragedy, Damon is able to take his character to a new place. He is able to paint the broader themes of the story through his conversations with Siddig’s prince as their relationship grows throughout the film. His tragedy, and his change to a cynic of sorts, represents the movie’s core: hopelessness.
All five of the protagonists go through a loss of perspective, and manage to lose sight of whatever personally satisfying goal they once had when their work started. They are all locked in a struggle to produce something that all agree is running out: oil. Each seems to start understanding the tediousness of what they do.
The one non-chaotic element of all five protagonist’s journeys is based upon family, which features prominently throughout “Syriana.” Each of the five is challenged to maintain the tangible family unit in the face of Middle East oil chaos. Sometimes one threatens the other, but most times they remain separate balancing acts.
Gaghan’s ultimately political statement about American dependence on oil is obvious – “we need to be very, very careful” – and the lack of the American consumer as a character in this film produce a very profound work.
Ryan Denham can be reached at email@example.com.