In 2000, “Traffic” exposed the war against drugs as naive and hopelessly compromised. Now, the makers of “Traffic” are trying to accomplish the same feat with “Syriana,” a panoramic view of Middle East politics and the oil industry.
Syriana is a term the CIA uses to refer to any Middle East hotspot, and “Syriana” tries to encompass the whole area’s problems. The movie is trying to combat simplified views of the region, but it ends up leaving out specifics with its characters and plot. Still, “Syriana” will leave you, if not better informed, at least suitably pessimistic.
“Syriana” is even more cynical than “Traffic.” There’s no battle between good and evil, just more corrupt and less corrupt – and the less corrupt usually lose. The movie is based on a book by former CIA agent Robert Baer, but writer and director Stephen Gaghan makes Baer (played by George Clooney) just one player in a world of shady dealings.
In his book, Baer argues that the CIA hasn’t been aggressive enough in bringing down terrorists and despotic regimes, he advocated a 1996 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but was overruled by the agency. In the movie, he’s one of the few characters willing to get his hands dirty, while the other characters prefer more subtly unethical maneuvers. “Corruption is why we win,” says oil company CEO Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), in case it wasn’t clear.
Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is a lawyer who sacrifices his bosses to get an oil company merger approved. The company, Connex, and the U.S. government are trying to keep the anti-U.S., nationalistic Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) from taking the throne of his small oil-producing country. Economic adviser Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) lands a lucrative position with Nasir because of a tragic accident.
The believers are more dangerous than the cynics. On the one side there’s the Coalition for the Liberation of Iran, which mixes romantic pronouncements about the Iranian reform movement with cheap talk. (Clooney loses an assignment at the CIA when he suggests it’s much more complicated.) On the other side is an imam (Amr Waked) who tells young immigrants working the oil fields that “the pain of living in the modern world will never be solved by a liberal society.” He’s acquired a missile from Baer, in an assassination gone wrong.
Gaghan wants us to wonder about everyone’s motives, but it’s hard to find a way into some of the murkier characters. Baer remains especially vague, everyone calls him Bob and few people know his last name. For a bullish, action-oriented agent, Clooney moves slowly and reluctantly, he gained 30 pounds and grew a beard for the role. Most of the action is inside his head.
“Syriana” keeps the shaky camerawork and shimmery visuals of “Traffic,” but not the headache-inducing color washes. Gaghan maintains an uneasy mood by ending each scene ambiguously, before the climax, and making drastic transitions. Teenagers sit on the floor in the Islamic school, eating with their hands. Then, suddenly we’re on a yacht, celebrating Nasir’s birthday.
The film’s advertising is calling “Syriana” a “political thriller,” but there’s not so much suspense as a general sense of dread. Events come together with slow inevitability – a boy tells his friend Wasim (Mazhad Munir), “They give us french fries at the Islamic school,” and it’s not a surprise when Wasim appears on video, explaining how he would like to be buried.
The ending doesn’t dispel this uneasiness. The tension finally explodes, literally. But there’s no satisfaction in it. Like a lot of events in the movie, and in the world, we don’t understand what happened, or why.
“Syriana” opens nationwide Dec. 9.