War is hell
Characters fight own battles in modern war drama
Stephen Gaghan’s new hot-button thriller takes on the lethal and highly lucrative maneuverings played out by multiple factions—governments, oil companies, CIA agents, high-powered lawyers, energy brokers, etc.—in the not-so-secret war for oil in the present-day Middle East. As such, it is urgent, significant, and—at times—a little bewildering.
As in Traffic, which he scripted for Stephen Soderbergh, Gaghan sets up an elaborate multi-character narrative with multiple settings and locations and a fragmentary way of progressing via leaps and bounds. It’s a riveting story through the sheer force of its complexity and contemporary aptness, even though it remains detached from even the most conspicuous and recognizable of its central characters. That it never really establishes a clear-cut “rooting interest” in all this may make it less satisfying to some viewers, but a confounding—or at least a testing—of conventional sympathies is part of Syriana’s peculiar distinction.
The film’s semi-stellar cast—George Clooney, Matt Damon and Jeffrey Wright as key figures; Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Chris Cooper and Amanda Peet in pungent supporting roles—is only part of the story. Clooney’s world-weary CIA agent, Damon’s eager-beaver “energy analyst,” and Wright’s steely government lawyer are all of special interest. But each of them, while ostensibly a key player in an unstable set of overlapping international conspiracies, is also a pawn in someone else’s game. Each of them has mixed or uncertain motives, and each is operating in terms of half-hidden agendas.
Variously troubled family lives turn up with each of those three, and Gaghan makes fragmented families—and father-son relationships, in particular—another of the recurring patterns among a multitude of characters. That pattern includes an unemployed Pakistani refugee whose two sons will be recruited by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists and two young princes who have conflicting designs on the oil-rich emirate that one of them will inherit.
The climax of the film uses a Godfather-like crosscutting between an oil industry celebration in the U.S. and an assassination—via spy satellite and guided missile—in the Middle Eastern desert.
There are several obvious and resounding ironies in this sequence, which puts a good number of the film’s characters on separate-but-related collision courses.
But that also becomes a way of ending the film, for better or worse, with both a bang and a whimper. That kind of finish is certain to create a measure of disappointment in one quarter or another, but it’s an apt exit scene for a film that’s concerned with a terrible swath of history that is still unfolding—and even more so for one that sees that history in terms of extremely difficult questions for which there are no easy answers, let alone happy ones.