Syriana (2005): Stephen Gaghan’s Political Thriller, Starring George Clooney

Writer-director Stephen Gaghan, winner of the 2000 Screenplay Oscar for “Traffic,” has chosen as his follow-up project “Syriana,” a political thriller that unfolds against the intrigues and corruption of the global oil industry and the rise of Islamic terrorism. The film’s multiple plots interweave a complex tale that illuminates the consequences of the fierce pursuit of wealth and power in the Middle East, from the players brokering back-room deals in Washington DC to the migrant laborers toiling in the oil fields of the Persian Gulf.

Similar in structure, but more ambitious and complex than “Traffic,” “Syriana” is a politically engaged film-essay that approximates reportage journalism rather than epic cinema or political thriller, though elements of those formats are also evident. Upping the ante of “Traffic,” which was comprised of three interrelated stories, Gaghan has constructed a tangled political yarn that involves over 70 speaking parts in at least six different locations.

Though Gaghan cites Costa-Gavras’s “Z” and American political films of the 1970s as sources of inspiration, his film is very different. There are no clearly defined heroes or villains in “Syriana,” no effort to provide an objective perspective on the story, and certainly no neat resolution. Multi-nuanced and ambiguous in text and subtext, “Syriana” aims at a non-melodramatic cinema, one that provides only basic motivations for its characters but no emotional pay-off. Psychology, identification, and emotion, three tenets of classic Hollywood cinema are undermined and even subverted in favor of a more neutral and detached mode of filmmaking that allows for various interpretations of the story.

Gaghan acquits himself more honorably as a writer than director. A strong director like Soderbergh (who’s one of the producer and helmed “Traffic”) would have made out of “Syriana” a shapelier film, both dramatically and visually. In his second film, Gaghan shows weaknesses in mise-e-scene as well as pacing.

With a running time of only two hours, “Syriana” may be too short to accomplish all its goals, and, indeed, in moments, the subject matter seems more appropriate for a TV mini-series. Nonetheless, overall, “Syriana” is an impressive achievement, and arguably the first American film to reflect through its anatomy of the global oil industry and terrorism the state of the world as we know it today, in the post 9/11 era.

The intrigue begins in an unnamed oil-producing Gulf country, where a young, charismatic and reform-minded Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) is seeking to change the long-established relationships with the U.S. business interests. Nasir, the apparent heir to the throne, has just granted gas-drilling rights–long-held by the Texas energy giant Connex–to a higher bid from China, an act that’s perceived as a huge blow not only to Connex but also to the American business interests in the region.

Cut to Killen, a smaller Texas oil company owned by Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), who has just won the competitive drilling rights to some coveted fields in Kazakhstan. This makes Killen very attractive to Connex, which now needs new territory to maintain its production capacity. When the two companies merge, the pending deal attracts the scrutiny of the Justice Department, and Sloan Whiting, a powerful white-show Washington law firm, is brought in to perform due diligence.

The closest the film comes to having a nominal hero and dramatic center is Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a vet CIA agent nearing the end of a long and respectable career, with a son headed for college and the possibility of spending the latter years of his service in a comfy desk job. Bob is depicted as an idealist, a devoted company man who has always believed that his work benefits his government and makes his country a safer place to live.

But alas in Bob’s last assignment, which involved the assassination of arms dealers in Tehran, a Stinger missile falls into the hands of a mysterious Egyptian. On his return to Washington, Bob is promised a promotion after one last undercover mission: Assassinating Prince Nasir. However, when one of his oil fields contacts turns on him, and the assassination attempt goes awry, Bob is scapegoated by the CIA; he’s betrayed by the organization to which he has devoted his life.

Clooney plays an updated role of the CIA agents and investigators that Robert Redford and Warren Beatty had played in the conspiracy films of the 1970s, such as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View.” In his searching to understand what happened, Bob undergoes a process of disillusionment, realizing that he has been lied to, used as a pawn, that he never really was privy to the motivation for the assignments he has blindly carried out.

As in “Traffic,” Gaghan doesn’t neglect the personal lives of his protagonists. Hen energy analyst Bryan Goodman (Matt Damon), a rising star at Energy Trading Company, lives with his wife Julie (Amanda Peet, one of the two women in the film) and their two young sons in Geneva. Attending a pool party given by Prince Nasir’s family, a tragic incident results in the death of Bryan’s younger son and causes a rift in the marriage. To make amends for the accident, Nasir offers Bryan a business opportunity to help the young leader realize his reformist idea, an opportunity that Bryan embraces to the dismay of his grieving wife.

Intergenerational conflict also describes the father-son relationship of Bob and his son Robby (Max Minghella), who just wants to live a normal life, instead of moving from one place to another with his father, and the troubled relationship between Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) and his father. Put in charge of the delicate task of guiding the Connex-Killen merger, Bennett is a Washington attorney at Sloan Whiting who needs to give the Justice department enough material to make their case against Killen for its shady dealings in Kazakhstan without jeopardizing the entire deal. It’s in the company and country’s interests that the merger goes through, and it also serves Bennett’s personal ambitions, which are fueled by a father (William C. Mitchell) he’s at odds with.

Functioning as Bennett’s sort of a surrogate father is Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), Bennett’s boss, the head of the firm and one of Washington’s most powerful men. Trying to undo Nasir’s deal with the Chinese, Dean knows that Nasir’s younger, more callow brother, Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha), will be more amenable to American business interests, and he pressures the aging Emir to choose Meshal to succeed him, thus effectively engineering Nasir’s political demise.

Just in case you thought that “Syriana” is all about the politics of nation-states, Gaghan introduces the variables of social class and class conflict in the form of migrant laborers in Nasir’s country, whose lives are directly affected by the royal family’s policies and the industry’s vagaries. Connex workers Saleem Ahmed (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) have just been laid off from their jobs in the fields when the Chinese take them over. Their future becomes more uncertain as they search in vain for work, before their visas expire. Saleem dreams of returning to Pakistan, whereas his son hopes for a better life, though becomes quickly disillusioned and angry at the way they are treated.

“Syriana” is loosely based on CIA Agent Bob Baer’s memoir, “See No Evil,” though Clooney’s character, Bob Barney, is fictional. The book helped Gaghan understand the web of players in the Middle East and in the oil business, and ultimately led to his choice to tell the story through multiple narratives. Gaghan has researched the film for a year and a half before beginning to work on the screenplay. During that time, he investigated the inner workings of the oil industry in the U.S., as well as journeying in the UK, France, Italy, Switzerland, Lebanon, Syria, Dubai, and North Africa, where he interviewed people at every level of the power chain that makes up the petroleum industry.

It’s impossible to do justice to the complex story of a film that unfolds as a puzzle, and the audience is required to put all the pieces together. Suffice is to say that “Syriana” encompasses sheiks and field workers, government inspectors and international spies, rich and poor, the famous and infamous, each playing their small part in a vast system that makes up the contemporary global oil industry. None of the participants sees the big picture, and none realizes the true extent of the explosive impact their lives will have upon the world.

Several of my colleagues found “Syriana” too complex and confusing too, since the movie consists of over 100 scenes, some of which last only seconds. Admittedly, “Syriana” is a tough movie to watch. It demands our attention; it’s not the kind of movie that you sit back and enjoy. That said, do not worry if at the end of the film you’ll find yourself agitated and dissatisfied, for “Syriana” refuses to make fast accusations or provide easy solutions. The movie ends in a logical way, but it’s not a clear or neat closure.

Underlining “Syriana” is a very liberal and democratic ideology. By placing the stories next to each other, Gaghan makes us think about our connections to the whole. “Syriana” uses ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances to explore the idea that personal responsibility does matter, that our daily choices contributes to where we are on a global level. It’s through these characters’ everyday lives that we are able to enter into a world that at first blush seems abstract and remote, but is relevant, because this nexus of oil interests, terrorism, and the possibility of democracy in the Middle East affect our economy as well as our personal and collective psyche.