Syriana: Narrative Structure and Ideology

Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” which unfolds against the intrigues of the global oil industry and Islamic terrorism, represents a new type of political cinema. Similar in structure but more ambitious and complex than “Traffic,” “Syriana” is an essay-film whose style approximates reportage journalism rather than epic cinema or political thriller, though elements of those genres are present too. Upping the ante from “Traffic,” which was comprised of three interrelated stories, Gaghan has constructs a tangled narrative system set in at least six locations and involving over 70 speaking parts.

Due to length constraints, my review of “Syriana” didn’t permit me to analyze in detail its underlying structure, ideology, characterization, and style, hence this essay.

Structural Principles

I don’t know if Gaghan subscribes to Freudian psychology, but one of the unifying structural elements of “Syriana” is intergenerational conflict, manifest in the troubled relationships between fathers and sons. There are no less than five sets of fathers and sons in the film.

Bob and Robby Barnes (George Clooney and Max Minghella). Bob is a vet CIA operative working out of the Middle East. His son Robby is a student, who wants a normal life. Bob is estranged from his wife and has a difficult relationship with his son Robby, who resents the life he’s been made to lead, constantly moving and having to start a new life everywhere his father travels. As Robby prepares to go to college, Bob fears he may finally be losing his son forever.

Bennett Holiday and Bennett Holiday Sr. (Jeffrey Wright and William Charles Mitchell). Bennett is an ambitious Washington attorney at Sloan Whiting law firm, in charge of the task of guiding the Connex-Killen merger. It’s in the company and the country’s interest that the merger goes through. It also serves his personal ambitions. Bennett’s upward mobility is complicated by his difficult relationship with his father, an alcoholic who faults his son for working for the establishment. While he has always denounced his father as a failure, as Bennett is drawn deeper into the morally ambiguous world of the industry, he starts to doubt his own right to judge his father’s character.

Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is married to Julie (Amanda Peet) and they have two young sons. Bryan is an energy analyst at an energy trading company, who lives in Geneva with his family. The death of his younger son in a pool accident is a turning point in the evolution of his character and the story.

Emir Hamad Al-Subaai has two sons, Prince Nasir and Prince Meshal (Nadim Sawalha, Alexander Siddig, and Akbar Kurtha, respectively). Emir Hamad, soon to step down, is under pressure to choose an heir. Prince Nasir is the older and thus next in line to become Emir of his country, but he’s reform-minded, unlike his younger, Prince Meshal.

Saleem Ahmed Khan and Wasim Ahmed Khan (Shahid Ahmed and Mazhar Munir). Wasim is a young migrant worker from Pakistan, trying to find work with his father in the oil fields of Nasir’s country. He and his father were recently laid off from their jobs in the Connex oilfields, when the Prince granted drilling rights to a Chinese corporation. 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.

Key Organization and Characters:


Terry George (Jamey Sheridan), Deputy CIA Chief
Fred Franks (Tom McCarthy), Bob’s superior at the CIA
Stan Goff (William Hurt), retired CIA agent, longtime associate of Bob Barnes
CIA Division Chief (Jane Atkinson)
Marilyn Richards (Viola Davis), Deputy National Security Adviser

CLI: Committee to Liberate Iran
Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), member of the CLI, a Texas oilman working with Jimmy Pope.

Killen: A small Texas oil company that’s being considered for a merger with the oil giant Connex.
Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), owner of Killen Oil

Connex: A powerful Texas oil company that wants to buy Killen in order to gain the smaller company’s drilling rights in Kazakhstan.
Tommy Thompson (Robert Foxworth), president of Connex Oil
Lee Janus (Peter Gerety), chairman of Connex Oil

The Sloan Whiting Law Firm
Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), head of the Sloan Whiting law firm that Sidney Hewitt (Nicky Henson) and Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) work for.

Center and Periphery

Deviating from classic Hollywood cinema, in which there is a clear dramatic center, usually a single hero-protagonist or a couple, “Syriana” is a more intentionally diffuse film, in which the center of the action constantly shifts from one person to another and from one locale to another.

The closest “Syriana” comes to have 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.

“Syriana” is loosely based on CIA Agent Robert Baer’s memoir, “See No Evil,” though Clooney’s character 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.

Bob has always put his career first, even before his family, not only out of dedication and a belief in the value of what he is doing, but also out of necessity. CIA officers lie to everybody, for their entire careers. They lie to their families, they lie to their children, they lie to their wives, and they lie to their friends.

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. When one of his oil fields contacts turns on him, and the assassination attempt goes awry, Bob is scapegoated by the CIA, betrayed by the organization to which he has devoted his life.

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

Ideology: The Power Elite and Class Consciousness

The film’s central units are nation-states, though at least half of them are fictionalized, such as Nasir’s unnamed country. You don’t have to be a Marxist to realize that Gaghan’s paradigm draws heavily on Marx’s Ruling Class, C. Wright Mills’ the Power Elite, and other versions of the Military-Industrial Complex.

The film’s cynical view of the ruling class and the global economic interests of the American foreign policy are clearly reflected in a blatant speech about corruption delivered by Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), a Texas oilman working with Jimmy Pope, who owns Killen Oil. He says:

“Corruption Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That’s Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here, instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the street. Corruptionis why we win.”

At the bottom of the social hierarchy are the migrant laborers whose lives are directly affected by the royal family’s policies and the industry’s vagaries. Connex workers Saleem Ahmed and his son 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.

Multiple Perspectives

The film’s chief intent is to tell a compelling story that also reflects the complexity and ambiguity of our current situation, one that explores diverse points of view, while not championing any one perspective as the truth.

Unlike most films, “Syriana” lacks a dominant POV. Moreover, Gaghan doesn’t impose his or any of the character’s perspectives on the tale. Gaghan said in an interview, “I discovered really hospitable people with very articulate points of view. I found that if you ask the same question to five different people, you get five different stories, and it’s still not the whole story. Starting from there, I tried to focus on how this whole world of clandestine information worked.”

Getting Closer to Global Politics

I hope “Syriana” will make issues and characters that seem alien and distant to American audiences much more accessible. Any time the lens by which youre viewing the whole can also be the lens by which you view the specific youre in better shape. Were able to go from Wasim, working with his father in the Persian Gulf, where he says, Someday well get a real house and get your mother here,’ to Bob Barnes visiting a college campus with his dad, Bob. The power of those specific images next to each other is that you hopefully start to feel connections that show you the whole: How we all inhabit the same world, and we all just want better lives for our children.

Character Versus Story

Gaghan’s goal is to let the characters serve the story rather than the other way round. “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. Bob Barnes is ultimately a company man who’s trying to do his job well and put his son through college. It’s through these characters’ everyday lives that were able to enter into a world that at first blush seems abstract to most people, but is relevant, because this nexus of oil interests, terrorism, and the possibility of democracy in the Middle East powerfully affects our economy as well as our psyche and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

While Robert Baer served as departure point for Clooney’s CIA foot soldier is not a real-life character. As Clooney has said: “That conception freed me quite a bit because I was no longer playing a living person. Instead, I was dealing directly with the issues that the movie brought up. I didn’t have to be connected with an accurate depiction of a particular person, so I could concentrate more on reacting honestly to the broader questions were raising.”

Barnes has made a career out of working deep within the Middle East in the 1980s. As a member of rapidly dwindling number of operatives in the area, Bob is one of only a handful of agents capable of infiltrating on that level. One aspect of Bob’s storyline is the systematic deconstruction of the CIA and what the effects of that are. There are not many Arab-speaking operatives left in the Middle East, which is a danger. The film promotes the idea that we are finished with the Cold War and that we don’t need surveillance anymore, we don’t need CIA operatives. Bob gets caught in what is basically a downsizing. Bob is a true believer, not a cynic. He believes that his work is the right thing to do, that it helps his country. But he becomes disillusioned because the company he’s devoted his life to lets him down.

Debate for Debate’s Sake

Producer-star George Clooney has said: “We saw the potential for “Syriana” to be made in the fashion of the films of the mid-1960s and early 1970s that were willing to discuss the failures of the government as if they were failures of all of us, not just a particular party or group. We are not trying to preach to anyone with this film. Movies at their best can initiate discussions, and in this case, discussions about world dependency on oil. But “Syriana” also opens discussions about corruption, about the effectiveness of the CIA, about any number of things. You want people to be standing around the water cooler the next day talking about it, saying, here’s what I agree with, or here’s where theyre wrong.’ We need that discussion.”