A veteran CIA agent (George Clooney) is brought back into the fold to carry out an off-the-books mission.
A lawyer working for a Texas oil company (Jeffrey Wright) is assigned to dig up the dirt on a dubious corporate merger before government prosecutors can find it.
A media analyst (Matt Damon) is handed the opportunity of a lifetime after his young son dies in an accident at a party hosted by an Arab prince (Alexander Siddig).
A young Pakistani immigrant (Mazhar Munir) working in the Middle East is laid off and becomes involved with Islamic fundamentalism.
Syriana is the second film directed by Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Traffic. His first was a Katie Holmes vehicle called Abandon that was never released theatrically here. Syriana, inspired by a book by former CIA employee Robert Baer, deliberately goes back to the storytelling style Gaghan used in Traffic: it tells four separate tales related to the international oil industry - some interconnected, some not. The intention is to explore the oil business the way Traffic explored the narcotics trade.
For the most part, Syriana does the job very effectively. It's certainly one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking films currently showing. Gaghan's script juggles the different storylines deftly. There are some very memorable monologues, one from Damon telling the prince what Americans think of him and his people, one from oil company lobbyist Tim Blake Nelson on the subject of corruption and a chilling one from Clooney explaining exactly what happens to people who mess with him and to their families. Gaghan's direction is also top notch. Steven Soderbergh, who directed Traffic and acted as producer on this film is an obvious influence.
As with Traffic, some threads work better than others. In that film, the material involving Mexican cop Benicio Del Toro and drug dealer's wife Catherine Zeta-Jones was the most riveting while the story of Michael Douglas and his drug addict daughter seemed too obvious a morality tale. Here the threads featuring George Clooney and Matt Damon are the most effective. Clooney, who put on weight for the role, is outstanding as a gone-to-seed CIA agent betrayed by his handlers and seeking answers. This is not the most original of stories but Gaghan manages to tell it credibly and compellingly.
Matt Damon's plotline is just as gripping. This thread looks at the relationship between the Middle East and the rest of the world from a rare and interesting point of view: that of the sheikhs, kings and emirs, the Arab ruling classes. There's also a moral slant to Damon's character's involvement with the prince. As his wife points out, he's using his dead son to further his career. However, is that justified if he's using his influence to do good? Damon gives a solid performance, Amanda Peet has some strong scenes as his wife and Alexander Siddig, better known to Star Trek fans as Dr Bashir of Deep Space Nine, is a revelation.
Less involving is watching Jeffrey Wright wade through the corruption in the US oil industry and in the government agencies responsible for keeping the corporations in line. This is simply too vast and complicated a subject to cover in roughly thirty minutes of screentime. The CIA subplot benefits from the (very) basic knowledge of the intelligence business most of us have gained from watching spy movies. Very few of us will know anything about the oil industry, corporate mergers or American political lobbying and we aren't left any the wiser at the end of Syriana. Another problem is that we don't get to know Jeffrey Wright's character well enough to care about the moral decisions he makes.
Given an even more cursory treatment is the film's look at Islamic fundamentalism, which we see through the eyes of a rather stupid and gullible young man. No doubt fanaticism relies a great deal on stupid, gullible young people but Gaghan fails to provide much insight into the character or into what turns a disaffected youth into a homicidal maniac.
It's not so much that these subplots are bad - the legal thread in particular has some fine scenes and performances. They just aren't up to the same standard as the others. The film's ending is also a little unsatisfying. It has the desired impact while you're watching it but in retrospect it seems a touch melodramatic, coming at the end of such a intensely low-key film.
Perhaps it's unfair to devote so much space to complaining that a very good film isn't perfect. There are plenty of movies around which can only dream of being as good as the weaker parts of Syriana. However, long stretches of this movie are so impressive that it's frustrating to see the film not quite reach its potential. Don't be put off. This is a powerful drama, a technically superb piece of filmmaking and a thoughtful meditation on a subject Hollywood rarely touches. It's well worth your attention.
Incidentally, although Syriana never names the Middle Eastern country in which it's partially set, the source material - Robert Baer's non-fiction book, Sleeping With The Devil - is explicitly about Saudi Arabia.