We didn’t want it to feel like we were trying to make a political stand out of this film. The truth is, we’re actually trying to tell a story which is… sort of… apolitical.
—George Clooney, “A Conversation with George Clooney”
The people [in the movie] who are doing things we may find morally questionable don’t believe they are doing things that are morally questionable, and truly believe that what they’re doing is for the good of the company. And they have a good argument.
—Jennifer Fox, “Make a Change, Make a Difference”
I’d set up my own exchange, hang on to my energy as long as I could.
—Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), Syriana
“You find that he was a true believer who became disillusioned because the Company sort of let him down eventually,” says George Clooney of Bob Baer. “He was part of the downsizing that happened to everybody else.” (For whatever reason, the HD-DVD’s conversation is with Matt Damon.) As Clooney says more than once in “A Conversation with George Clooney” in the new, un-special edition DVD of Syriana, his character, Bob Barnes, is only inspired on Baer’s experiences, at least those remembered in the former CIA operative’s See No Evil. Clooney’s Bob is weary and depressed. He feels betrayed when the CIA decides he’s no longer useful. But he can also see why.
Clooney describes his Bob as “barely holding his act together, barely holding his family together, not moving up in the CIA and rapidly losing any clout he has there.” Though, as Syriana opens, Bob is fully aware that the political intrigues of the Middle East change daily, he’s surprised to learn the weapons he’s selling in Tehran are going to unexpected buyers. The fact that he’s even worried about where a stinger missile ends up suggests that he’s past his CIA expiry date anyway. When it comes to guns, oil, and drugs, business-as-usual dictates that you maintain relationships only as long as they’re useful.
Syriana‘s plot recalls ‘70s political thrillers (and indeed, Clooney says he and Gaghan meant to make a film modeled on that era, “willing to discuss geopolitical issues without sort of pointing fingers directly at a specific person”). But even as it doesn’t “point fingers,” the film does encourage reevaluation and action; the DVD includes a brief piece, “Make a Change, Make a Difference,” in which the major players—Clooney, Gaghan, Damon, Jeffrey Wright—urge consideration of how oil organizes the world, and especially, how the U.S. pursues and profits from it.
To make this organization comprehensible, the film focuses on several fractured relationships (mostly fathers and sons), beginning with Bob’s. “For me,” says Clooney, “the secret to that was to look like I would not do another project, so it’s put on 30 pounds in 30 days. That was really comfortable.” In Syriana, Bob is one of several figures—specifically, fathers of increasingly impatient sons—facing their own ends. Their likeness helps hold together the movie’s multiple plot strands, comprised of details and difficulties, coming together into a mature, provocative look at global machinations by small-minded men.
Bob doesn’t see himself in quite this way. He’s surprised that his son Robby (Max Minghella) has grown resentful toward his cast-about childhood: he tells his dad he wants a “normal” high school experience: “I want Cinemax and prom. Do you know what prom is like in Tehran?” Dad doesn’t know, as he’s been focused throughout his career on controlling and containing what’s wrong in a world where prom is unimportant. His is the CIA’s grandest self-delusion, that it can manage so much and so many. Bob’s bosses at Langley decide he’s a problem, as he knows too much and is starting to voice his concerns (“He’s gotta stop with the memos”). And so they find him a project they can control.
When an emir named Nasir (Alexander Siddig) makes an oil deal with China instead of the U.S. company Connex, the CIA sends Bob to oversee the young sheik’s assassination. At the same time, Connex is moving to merge with the smaller Killen, owned by Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) and new owners of drilling rights to rich fields in Kazakhstan. Pope is an old-school Texas oilman use to getting his way (“My daddy was a wild-catter, nobody ever gave me shit,” he pronounces, then wonders during a board meeting, “What is an emir anyway?”). The merger will make the two companies, together, the world’s fifth largest oil and gas company.
The shift to Chinese ownership has far-reaching effects, including worker layoffs in the Gulf. When Ahmed Kahn (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) lose their work permits and face deportation back to Pakistan, the latter and his friend Farooq (Sonnell Dadral) seek ways to act on their anger and frustration, becoming grim case studies in the making of suicide bombers. Ahmed seems to his son powerless and weak: Wasim means to have his revenge.
A different sort of father-son dilemma emerges in the story of energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), who, on assignment to land a huge account for his company, brings along his wife Julie (Amanda Peet) and two young sons for a weekend at Nasir’s Marbella home. An accident leaves Bryan’s family devastated and Nasir feeling guilty. In turn, he brings Bryan on as his own policy consultant, at which point the naïve American tells himself that he now has a chance to make energy a force for progressive politics. Bryan sees a bigger picture (“It’s running out,” he observes of the energy everyone’s chasing), and sees what to do in manageable abstractions (“Invest in your infrastructure,” he advises Nasir). What he can’t see, amid his own effort to forget his immediate pain, is the brutality with which his vision might be quashed.
One of these is put in motion indirectly by the Justice Department, who tries to keep Killen in check by way of Washington law firm Sloan Whiting. Headed and embodied by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), the firm makes its own calculations, understanding that loyalty to a government is only as productive as the protection that government might provide. Whiting sends his current up-and-comer Ben Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) to gather exploitable intel and set up for a second deal with Nasir’s callow brother Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha). While Nasir is advocating women’s rights and sharing the wealth, Meshal is a more familiar—not to say stereotypical—trade partner, essentially and readably dishonest and predictable.
Ben has his own stakes, partly emerging out of a father-son plot that runs parallel to that of Ahmed and Wasim. Ben’s dad (William C. Mitchell) regularly turns up on his son’s townhouse stoop, drunk and miserable. Ben takes him in, the film leaving the details of their routine and tension unspoken, but it’s clear that the son feels simultaneous resentment and responsibility. Gentle with his father, aware of his lifetime of disappointment, Ben also grapples with racism and fear of failure at work, finding his way through a veritable maze of corporate, personal, and official corruptions.
And here’s the rub. While Bob’s son Robby might rebel within a system of privilege, both Ben and Wasim daily see their fathers’ defeats as inevitable and ongoing. Frustrated, the sons adapt to the cruel, fanatical, and radically individual politics of their moment. Corruption, as Pope’s lobbyist Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) puts it, is not deviation but business as usual. “Corruption is our protection,” he says, in something like a dazzling speech. “Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here rather than fighting over scraps of meat on the street. Corruption is why we win.”
If you come away with nothing else from Syriana, it’s that this concept—winning—is an illusion, at least in any sort of long run. Though the oil men and the lawyers feel safe in their enclaves for the time being, this security, like the resources that shore it up, is “running out.” And the legacy left by fathers to sons is increasingly untenable.
Syriana - Theatrical Trailer