George Clooney plays a shrewd CIA operative in Stephen Gagans new political thriller, Syriana.
The high price of Syriana crude
By Leonard Quart
Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for the multi-narrative drug trade expose, Traffic, takes on the global oil industry in his new political thriller, Syriana. Like John Frankenheimers Manchurian Candidate, Alan Pakulas Parallax View, and, most recently, Fernando Meirelles The Constant Gardener, it generally succeeds in making strong political points while providing the pleasure of pulsating suspense and action. Unlike these films, however, its multiple story lines are a bit too convoluted to make complete sense of in one screening. Still, this is a politically provocative, exhilaratingly edited film about the moral rot at the center of American power.
Though the thriller as a genre is more interested in rapid plot twists than in nuanced character development, Syriana does contain an understated, striking performance by George Clooney (the films executive producer) who plays a bearded, overweight CIA agent (Robert Barnes). Its Barnes who is the prime figure in the films central plot, which involves the United States government trying to insure that the oil companies maintain their concession in a Persian Gulf shiekdom. A shrewd and skilled operative, hes been used and emotionally depleted in the struggle against Middle East arms dealers and terrorists. Its only after the agency hangs him out to dry that he finds within himself a remnant of decency, and turns against the people he has served so dutifully.
For the most part, however, the film is filled with bad guys who have few redeeming qualities. They range from aristocratic, amoral lawyers to strident, profit-driven oilmen, to Gulf state monarchs who care only about their sybaritic lifestyle, and finally, to CIA bureaucrats devoid of any semblance of humanity. Even its more sympathetic figures, like Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a quietly observant Washington lawyer, arent without their faults. To serve his firm and cement an oil merger, Bennett is willing to perform due diligence, which in this case means providing the Justice Department with a scapegoat or two to make certain the deal goes through and his career gets a boost.
Syriana also provides a sharply etched portrait of the immigrants who work the oil fields and live in cramped hostels. Wasim (Mazhar Munir) is a young, delicate Pakistani laborer who loses his job, and then in quick succession becomes a Muslim extremist and suicide bomber after he attends a local madrassa. His transformation, and the image of the imam lecturing students may be too schematic, but its a clear illustration of how Islamic fundamentalism can be seductive to people with little hope.
Political thrillers tend to go in for conspiracies, and there is something too neat about a world where a nefarious collusion between oil companies, lawyers, politicians and Middle East monarchs controls the global oil supply. But even if Syriana makes the truth a bit simpler and less ambiguous than it is, the general thrust of its attack feels powerfully on target. Gaghan and Clooney have created what the best political thrillers hope to achieve: a politically resonant and uncompromising work that will reach general audiences because of its star power and cinematic energy.