- Score Card, an introduction of characters and themes
- A Case of Misplaced Idealism, the CIA vs. big oil
- Upholding Law and Order, the lawyer’s story
- A Balancing Act, other subplots and perspectives
- The Spy Who Could Not Come in from the Cold, Clooney’s performance
- Deleted Scenes, on the film’s complexity
- Dazed and Confused, a summary
If Syriana weren’t being hyped as the next hot spy thriller set in Washington and the Middle East, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. But instead of a taut thriller, you’ll be embroiled in a weighty, complex film about current affairs. Should you choose to accept it, your mission could be a pleasurable one if, fifteen minutes before the film started, someone handed you a card containing some information that would help you to understand it.
R for violence, language
First, you’d need Syriana’s plot summary (no spoilers ahead): A big American oil company, Connex, stands to lose a huge contract to a Chinese oil company. Connex hooks up with a little Texas oil company, Killen, who is coincidentally awarded a contract to drill all of Kazakhstan, a deal which sets the US Department of Justice’s noses a-twitching. The principals in this drama are the oil scions in the US and the Middle East, and the phalanx of personnel — lawyers, CIA agents, money men, and so on — who inevitably accompany the money, oil, and arms deals.
Then, you’d need a list of characters, as lengthy as a Russian novel’s:
- Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a used-up CIA man whose outdated politics are about to get him ousted for good, sent to the Middle East to assassinate:
- Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the Emir’s Oxford-educated older son of the failing but oil-rich Emir, has been working for this opportunity for his entire life. He is ready to sign the orders and invest the oil money from the Chinese into his own country’s infrastructure, in the form of roads, development and education, to break a tradition of trading oil for leveraged deals on U.S.-made airplanes.
- The Americans, however, have backed the Emir’s younger son, Prince Meshal Al-Subaai, who will leave US military bases in place and keep the oil flowing to America’s Hummers. The prince wants to be Emir for all the wrong reasons (personal wealth, that is, the undoing of everyone here).
- Bennett Holliday (Jeffrey Wright) is the Washington, D.C., lawyer who is tapped to investigate the oil merger for any signs of impropriety, a young, black, and really unpopular guy in the paneled retreats of the oilmen, as you might imagine. He threads his own trail through among the packs of wolves and bears.
- Dean Whiting (a perfectly cast Christopher Plummer), one of the bears, as Bennett’s boss at Sloan Whiting, the law firm for Connex, who has no intention of letting his pals’ oil go to China.
- Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a young father and energy analyst in Europe who is compensated for a personal tragedy with great influence and power, as Prince Nasir’s financial advisor.
Themes would be another topic to add to your cheat sheet: “Outsiders” is perhaps the most prevalent. CIA agent Barnes is an outsider within his organization — and within his own family. As a young black lawyer, Bennett is an outsider in the world of big oil. Prince Nasir is an outsider because of his own idealism. Financial analyst Woodman is an outsider as a freelancer who is trying to make his mark as an energy analyst in Europe and takes an opportunity that casts him out of his own family. Other themes include fathers and sons, the getting and keeping of power, and even how militancy in its many forms is developed, one decision at a time — not only among Pakistanis fired from their lucrative oil jobs in Iran but also among conservatives and Justice Department lawyers.
The world of Syriana truly is this complicated: Were you to understand this material from the get-go, this film would be so much more satisfying. A tricky animated title sequence could introduce each character and put him and her on a map. Of course, a lot of people just want to see something as good as Ronin, or The Bourne Identity, or The Fast and the Furious. With Syriana, in contrast, we’re in a graduate-level lecture hall for a couple of hours with a director-professor who presumes a great deal of prior understanding of oil politicking, Washington law and Middle-Eastern power structures most of us just haven’t been keeping up on. So if you are intrigued, read on, and I promise I won’t give away any major plot surprises. Otherwise, I hear they’re releasing the third of the Bourne trilogy soon.
The CIA doesn’t want to hear about Bob’s tracking of a missing missile. No one wants his idealism mucking up their sweet arms and oil deals. Chris Cooper nails his character, the maverick oilman, who is, along with all the other oilmen, trying to gladhand the lawyer looking into the deal.
The oilmen belong to a group cynically named the Committee for the Liberation of Iran, which clearly translates to “the committee for the liberation of Iran’s resources for the Americans who make it all possible.” When CIA agent Barnes lets fly with his own version of what he sees, he is banished to a desk job, but not until he goes out on one final mission: to assassinate Prince Nasir, the older son of the failing oil-rich Emir. When the assassination fails and Bob realizes he doesn’t know for whom or what he had been working, he makes his own choices.
Syriana’s script tosses around its libelous presumptions like glasses of water in a bar: The senators are all in it for the money; the lawyers are all in it for the money and the power; if US government and big business wasn’t pulling strings to keep its financial interests in the Middle-East, the Middle-Eastern countries might have half a chance at investing in their own infrastructure for a change; and the CIA is willing to shake hands with Justice and look the other way because no one wants to take the hit for sending the economy down the toilet; and last but not least, graft makes the world go ‘round. The willingness of almost every character to do the most self-interested thing often makes these characters seem one-dimensional, and the film’s politics unilateral.
The most chilling moment in this film comes at the end of a gruesome torture scene when the torturer tells Bob how to get monks to recant their beliefs: “The problem, Bob, is when you have no beliefs to recant. What then?” In Bob’s darkest moments he sees he has been operating under his own assumptions but without knowing for what or whom he was really working.
Meanwhile, in another plot thread, also in Washington D.C., Bennett Holliday schleps back and forth between sporty or swanky gatherings of oil fatcats and his bosses at the Department of Justice to gather their information. He’s so quiet we’re never sure whether he’s going to shake hands and join their country clubs or deliver their heads on a plate to the US government.
Naturally, the American oil barons don’t want to lose one iota of their cut of the merger that Bennett is investigating, and with the exception of Bennett, the rest of the lawyers and oil execs are all a clubby, stout, entitled lot, which shows their solidarity but makes them difficult to identify as individuals in the context of the film. Justice decides to settle for exposing just two people in cash-for-contracts schemes and will let the merger go ahead for the sake of American industry. Everyone assures Bennett that if he finds little enough to complain about, he may find himself in their clubs and able to afford his own house on the Cape, too.
Bennett’s story starts to look like All the President’s Men: I felt a thrill at the phalanx of workers tirelessly sifting a warehouse full of paper when Bennett notices the chief sifter’s oddities file containing the smoking gun, a record of a senator’s cut of the big oil action. Bennett’s motives are nowhere near as noble as Woodward and Bernstein’s, however; he seems interested only in distancing himself from his alcoholic dad, whose only asset is the card with his son’s phone numbers in case people find him passed out somewhere, a regular occurrence. It is not clear, as the film progresses, why so many scenes show Bennett’s dad dropping in again for more of his son’s cold shoulder. But in the final scene, Bennett thaws toward his dad, perhaps tolerant of his father’s shortcomings when faced with his own. This isn’t quite enough to make us care about him, though, as the father-son drama seems so imbalanced, isolated from everything else in this film.
Gaghan tries to show us every side of every argument: We see the fat cats’ eyes narrow when Bob lets fly with his own left-handed views right in front of the Committee to Liberate Iran.
We see the senator whose oil deals get his kids trust funds and Swiss boarding school, protesting that “Corruption is what keeps us warm!” and that the market must rule every decision we capitalists make.
We are in on the conversation between the retiring Emir’s elder son, Prince Nasir, and Woodman, an energy analyst, about how oil money really gets spent — on US-made planes and $50K-a-night hotel rooms instead of invested back into the Middle-Eastern countries’ infrastructures—and what they could do with some of that cash: restore equality, democracy, and education.
We also see how the laid-off Pakistani workers, kids who’ve never known much of love or life, are enthralled by the promise of the Muslim faith as they eat their hot meals and get religious instruction and are treated like human beings after the oil merger squeezes them out of their jobs. By the time these innocents are asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, they’re proud and happy to oblige.
In the opening scenes of Syriana, Bob meets a playboy-cum-arms dealer at a swanky club, where the younger man strings him along as he does some other luscious lasses. The playboy turns to Bob and coldly asks, “How’s the kid?” as if to demarcate the exact proportions of the vast gulf between them. Bob simpers his embarrassed reply, trying to hang onto the deal by his fingernails, and knowing that someone’s gun to his head could end it all at any moment.
Clooney, as Barnes, shows us exactly what is at stake and why he will be on the Oscar lists this year when he later confronts his boss outside his suburban home, but to no avail: His boss goes inside, into the warm shelter of wife and children and job, while Bob is locked out on the driveway. Clooney is great not just because he packed on 35 pounds and endured an excruciating back injury in pursuit of his character, but because on his rounded shoulders he wears the beaten-down, hunted quality of this character as perfectly as a hair shirt. He opens a window into the dark eyes of an idealistic but fatally liberal soldier for the secret police of the most powerful nation on Earth and whose oil barons have exactly no tolerance for said politics but turn out to be the constituency that really matters.
Clooney’s is not the only excellent acting in this film. Bennett Holliday’s reserve barely covers a simmering intelligence in Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of the high-minded black lawyer. Christopher Plummer plays the powerful lawyer Dean Whiting as if to the manor born. Alexander Siddig is convincing as the doomed Prince Nasir, and Amanda Peet has a few bright moments onscreen as the wife of Matt Damon’s character, Bryan Woodman.
Writer and director Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the Academy-Award-winning screenplay for Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s big-screen adaptation of the British TV miniseries, here juggles as many story lines and again breaks every film school rule in the book by mixing so many central characters’ stories in equal measure. Sometimes it works. But after reading a November New York Times Magazine piece in which Gaghan said of his decision to remove one of the competing subplots from an earlier versions: “Five was the number of story lines that broke the camel’s back,” I’d argue that Gaghan’s notion of four story lines bears little resemblance to the eight or so threads I was trying to juggle as I watched the final version of Syriana.
I scrambled and largely failed to keep up when I saw a longer version of Syriana in Los Angeles this June, when it had an additional 20 or so minutes of footage. The second time through, however, I had the plot threads in mind and could focus more on the terms of the deals being brokered throughout this film: Between the Chinese oil consortium and the American oil execs, between the lawyer and the Justice Department, between the lawyer and the oilmen, between the senator and the oilmen, and so on.
It doesn’t help us sort out the moraine of detail when everyone is always speaking in code. Euphemism is this community’s lingua franca. Most of these cryptic conversations amount to, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” or “Be warned: they’ll stop at nothing to have their backs scratched,” but this film comes up with a stunning number of ways to say these things.
Even after taking copious notes both times I watched this film, and consulting the synopsis and character list on the film’s web site (syrianamovie.warnerbros.com), I couldn’t sort out a few of these plots and people, like Barnes’ assassination job gone awry (when? In Iran? In Beirut? Was that why Barnes was sent to Beirut?). A subset of the characters — lawyers, oilmen, Pakistanis, the Hezbollah — are absurdly difficult to identify and track. We can just be grateful that Gaghan doesn’t use as much of the hand-held digital video Soderbergh championed in Traffic; we’d be dizzy on top of it all.
Ideally, Syriana will be released on DVD in a director’s cut twice as long as this version (see Cameron Crowe’s Untitled), to give all of this material the space and attention it deserves and restore some of the sliced-off subplots. Fans would enjoy scenes like ones cut from a longer version screened in June that featured Greta Scaachi as Bob’s wife, a part that was completely excised from the final version. Before the cuts, more scenes with his wife and bitter teenaged son revealed Bob was a more involved father and a CIA spy. In the final cut, Bob speaks only once with his son; by the time his computer is seized and his colleagues will no longer take his calls, he’s more a lone wolf than a sympathetic everyman just trying to hang on until retirement like everyone else.
In your theaters this season, you can go see a good film struggling to free itself from this frustratingly opaque and intricate one. Although Syriana offers a richness and depth of perspective, never talking down to its viewers, too many filmgoers in search of mere entertainment will be frustrated by the complexity of the information and the pace at which it is heaped onscreen. With Syriana, Gaghan has made a fantastic date movie — for Washington lawyers, oil execs, or Berkeley poli-sci majors. The rest of us must hope he releases the four-hour version on DVD. With the cheat sheet.