Syriana (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

This Middle Eastern spy thriller is complex and earnest, a film that repays close attention.


Director: Stephen Gaghan
Cast: Matt Damon, George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Siddig, Mazhar Munir, Amanda Peet, Christopher Plummer
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-11-23 (Limited release)

Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a CIA agent who's fallen behind. Though he's fully aware that the vast spyscape of the Middle East changes daily, he's alarmed when he learns that the weapons he's selling in Teheran 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. When it comes to guns, oil, and drugs, the point is to maintain relationships only as long as they're useful.

In Syriana, Bob is only one of several figures -- specifically, fathers -- trying to keep up. The film is comprised of multiple plot strands, some intersecting outright, others bumping briefly as if by accident: all weigh heavily and move sinuously, however (not unlike the script director Stephen Gaghan adapted for Traffic), and all repay attentive viewing. But while the plot particulars -- who betrays whom and who works for which nefarious corporate entity, be it government or private sector -- are surely complicated and compelling, what's most pressing at any moment is a detail of gesture or glance. The film is built on fine performances and difficult positions, a mature, provocative look at global machinations performed by small-minded men.

A team player for most of his career, Bob appears lost as the film begins. His wife, also "in the business," never shows up on screen, though his son, Robby (Max Minghella), resents his cast-about childhood: he tells his dad he wants a "normal" existence, even as the chance (and the illusion) is now lost forever: "I want Cinemax and prom. Do you know what prom is like in Tehran?" Dad can't know, of course, as he's remained focused on his work, his efforts to change the world, or more precisely, to maintain its uneasy balance, to keep it from careening out of control.

This is the CIA's grandest self-delusion, of course, that it can control so much and so many. When Bob's bosses at Langley decide that he's off his game, they worry. They need to keep him in play; he knows too much and is starting to voice his concerns ("He's gotta stop with the memos"). To cut losses, they make a strategic, expedient choice: they'll deplete Bob until he's dead.

Inspired by See No Evil, a 2002 memoir by former CIA operative Robert Baer, Syriana is complex and earnest, a film that repays close attention. If its initial plot outline recalls '70s political thrillers -- where the good man is dogged by his evil government employers until he finds a way to beat them at their own game -- in fact, Bob's moral dilemma is not so easily sorted. He's not a conventionally good man, but a desperate, dedicated, and eventually, broken one. And his employers know it.

When charismatic, rising political force Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) makes an oil deal with China instead of the U.S. company Connex, the bosses send Bob to oversee the young sheik's assassination. At the same time, energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is angling for his own payday, going so far as to bring wife Julie (Amanda Peet) and two young sons along for a weekend at Nasir's Geneva home, just as Connex moves to merge with the smaller Killen, owned by Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) and not incidentally, new owners of drilling rights to rich fields in Kazakhstan. Pope is an old-school Texas oilman ("My daddy was a wild-catter, nobody ever gave me shit"), and used to getting his way. The merger will make the two companies, together, the world's fifth largest oil and gas company (which translates to the 23rd largest GNP, that is, humungous).

The shift to Chinese ownership has far-reaching effects, of course, including worker layoffs in the Gulf. When Pakistani migrant Ahmed Kahn (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) lose their work permits, the younger man and his best friend Farooq (Sonnell Dadral) seek ways to act on their anger and frustration, becoming grim case studies in the making of suicide bombers. As the film's tagline has it, "Everything is connected."

Just so, the visit to Geneva leaves Bryan's family personally devastated, following a swimming pool accident. When the relatively liberal Nasir, feeling responsible, brings Bryan on as his own policy consultant, the naïve American tells himself that he now has a chance to make energy a force for progressive politics. Bryan can, in fact, see a bigger picture ("It's running out," he observes, of the "natural" resource that drives everyone around him), but he also sees in manageable abstractions ("Invest in your infrastructure," he advises Nasir, missing the more immediate threats to both of them).

Back in the States, the Justice Department makes its own move, to keep some administration control over the oilmen, siccing Washington law firm Sloan Whiting on Killen's Kazakhstan contract. Headed and embodied by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), the firm has its own calculations to make, understanding that loyalty to a government is only as productive as the protection that government might provide. Whiting sends his current up-and-comer Bennett 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's making noises about women's rights and sharing the wealth, Meshal is a more familiar -- not to say stereotypical -- trade partner, essentially and readably dishonest, predictable and manipulable.

At the same time, 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; though Ben takes him in -- without much in the way of conversation, as the film leaves the details of their routine and tension unspoken -- it's clear, in Wright's performance, that the son feels simultaneous resentment and responsibility. Gentle with his father, aware of his disappointments, Ben grapples with racism and fear of failure at work, finding his way through a veritable maze of corporate, personal, and official corruptions.

But here's the rub, or one of them. While Bob's son Robby -- white, affluent, in school -- might find rebel without consequence (that you see, anyway), both Ben and Wasim daily confront and absorb their fathers' perpetual defeats as systemic, inevitable, and ongoing. In order not to repeat such failures or succumb to collective oppressions, the sons adapt to the cruel, fanatical, and radically individual politics of their moment. Corruption is, as Pope's lobbyist Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson) puts it, is not deviation but business as usual. "Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation... We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm." If some sons can learn this lesson at their daddies' knees, others must bend to it, accept it and finesse it, in order to survive.

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