SYRIANA: Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, based on See No Evil by former CIA case officer Robert Baer. Produced by Jennifer Fox, Michael Nozik, Georgia Kacandes. Executive producers George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh, Ben Cosgrove, Jeff Skoll. Cinematography, Robert Elswit. Production design, Dan Weil. Editor, Tim Squyres. Composer, Alexandre Depslat. Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and Jeffrey Wright. With Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Mazhar Munir, Tim Blake Nelson, Amanda Peet, Christopher Plummer, Alexander Siddig and Omar Mostafa. Warner Bros., 2005. R. 122 minutes.
Each information-rich sequence in Syriana registers lightly even as the next begins. As the sequences switch, both location and characters change. Different settings include Washington, D.C.; Hondo, Texas; Tehran; Beirut; some unnamed oil-producing Persian Gulf country. Episodes span five continents and support a huge number of major players as well as significant minor ones. Keeping track of a new set of characters every few minutes can be disconcerting at first, but the task is ultimately rewarding. Syriana is a film well worth seeing more than once.
The opening scene is selected to give the audience a sense of where the filmmakers want you to focus, and Syriana does not open in the corridors of power. It opens in the Middle East desert, as men dressed for a work day, some holding tools, board a bus. Squabbles break out between workers, and the threat of violence is in the air. Some men have greater status than others. The desert air, you feel, is still cool, because it is foggy. These immigrant workers speak differing languages. They are about to be fired and their foreign worker permits invalidated by Connex, the U.S.-based corporation for which they’ve toiled in the oil fields. They’re told the Chinese have been awarded the contract, but not that it was done by the foreign minister, Prince Nazir, (Alexander Sidding). Connex is out. With this orientation, the rest of the film — some of which takes place in gatherings of the powerful — makes more sense.
Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a professional liar. A CIA operative, he’s worked for the company out of the Middle East for years. Bob has always done what the agency wanted. Now they want him to deal arms, so he goes to a hot spot and works the deal. But something goes wrong, and Bob sees more than he should. Alarmed, he writes memos about it to his superiors, which they do not appreciate. At home, Bob hopes to help his son (Max Minghella) through college, but they have problems.
Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is a lawyer performing “due diligence” on a proposed merger between Connex and a little-known Texas oil company, Killen Oil. The Justice Department is looking at the merger, and Bennett interfaces with Asst. Attorney General (Peter Gerety), his former law professor. Bennett works for the law firm, Sloan Whiting. The president of the firm is Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), a gloves-off man who wields naked power. Bennett, too, has problems at home: his alcoholic father (William Charles Mitchell), who thinks his son has sold out.
At a high-pressure meeting, Bennett observes that the owner of Killen Oil is a scrappy little guy named Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), while the Connex president is a cool customer named Tommy Thompson (Robert Foxworth). Pope’s buddy in Killen is Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), who later tells Bennett the hard truth about the oil business in the film’s best speech: “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. Corruption … is why we win.”
Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an energy analyst living in Geneva, Switzerland, with his wife (Amanda Peet) and their two sons. The family attends a weekend, where Woodman expects to have an audience with the reform-minded Prince Nasir, but tragedy postpones their meeting.
Among the now unemployed migrant workers is Wasim (Mazhar Munir) and his pal, Farooq (Sonnell Dadral). The young men meet a charismatic cleric from the local madrassa. We’ve met him already, briefly, in an earlier scene with Bob Barnes. Eventually, most characters are linked by Big Oil — whose land it lies under; who can bring it up and get it out; who protects American oil interests overseas; who tries to regulate the industry but fails; who owns the huge profits to be made from a dwindling resource.
An ambitious epic by Stephen Gaghan, Syriana is one of the year’s best films. A second viewing brings additional respect to performance by Clooney, Cooper, Damon, Nelson, Sidding and Plummer, but no one slacks off. Very highest recommendations, the film is now playing at Cinemark and Cinema World.