Politics in the movies, when done right, are more thrilling than any chase scene. Syriana is a byzantine thicket of venal motives and cross purposes. You may find yourself behind the curve and struggling to keep up. But the movie trusts that even if you fail you’ll want to try, and so becomes a uniquely fascinating political thriller about big oil and power politics.
Begin with a fact: the world’s oil reserves are running out, and we are coming to the end of cheap energy. The scramble for what’s left is becoming increasingly deperate and violent, and all that oil never seems to benefit the citizens of the countries who have it.
A massive Texas oil company, Connex, is trying to merge with a smaller one, to gain access to one of the last remaining undisovered oil fields. Once conjoined, the new company will become the 23rd biggest economy on Earth. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office is sniffing around for corruption, and threatens to block the deal. Lawyers for Connex will fight as dirty as it takes.
We meet Nasir Al-Subbai, Alexander Siddig, a Syrian prince who will soon succeed his father. Bryan Woodman, Matt Damon, is a financial advisor from a Swiss energy consulting firm that wants the plum account that Al-Subbai represents. Woodman has just lost a son, and lets his bitterness show: "You are squndering the greatest natural resource in the world," he says. "China outbids the U.S., but you turn your back because of corruption. 100 years you were out here in the desert chopping each other’s heads off, and that’s where you’ll be in another 100. We’re going to suck you dry."
Al-Subbai is an Oxford-educated reformer, sick of yes men, who likes Bryan’s frank approach. He would like to keep the oil money in his country, and he proposes changes that scare Connex and powerful interests in the U.S. government. They would rather install his playboy brother as a puppet.
Among the dozen or so important characters, we also meet Bob Barnes, George Clooney, a CIA operative who did wetwork in Beirut. He speaks Farsi, and has deep knowledge of the Gulf. He is sent to scare Al-Subbai, or worse. Bob is accustomed to being used; but something horrible will happen to him, and he will awaken.
Like the movie Traffic , also written by writer/director Stephen Gaghan, Syriana doesn’t just enter the rooms where decisions are made that will affect millions of lives; it depicts those affected. The most moving is Hashim, a young Pakistani man who lives with his father in the Gulf. When Connex fires its local workers, Hashim is facing deportation. He tries to find other work, but he doesn’t speak Arabic, and is turned away. As his options vanish, he is inexorably drawn to the most desperate solution: suicide bombing. That he is seen sympathetically is the movie’s bravest move.
Now forget the summary, which is as doomed as counting grains of sand in the desert. When watching Syriana , you are absorbed by the complexity, and don’t need to straighten out the details to get the picture. The movie is amazingly assured, since it is practically Gaghan’s directorial debut, and that’s why you trust it, and go with it. It has the authority of real location work; it looks like Iran, Spain, Switzerland, France, D.C.. As expose, it recalls The Constant Gardener , but it’s ambition is greater, and it’s much better. That its ending is pat hardly hurts it; it had to find a way to stop. You may not want it to.
Syriana is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.