So goes Syriana, the latest entrant in the cinema-of-quality sweepstakes that seems to have Jane Austen adaptations at the one end of the spectrum and issue-oriented dramas like Traffic at the other. Indeed, Syrianais a direct descendant of Traffic, with Steven Soderbergh ensconced in an executive-producer slot and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan taking a most ambitious stab at directing, in what’s only his second feature film (the first was 2002’s Abandon, starring Katie Holmes and Benjamin Bratt). It views a complex sociopolitical issue — in this case, the relationship between moneyed Western interests and the oil-rich nations of the Middle East — through a prism with four facets, corresponding to the interlocking stories of four different characters leading four very different lifestyles.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ earnest intentions translate in cinematic terms to some narrative inertia. The first half of the film feels a little like CNN: The Movie, as character after character voices expository dialogue meant to, if not quite preach to us, then to educate us about a particular point of view. The first big plot point comes across at an odd distance, more like a news story we’d see reported on TV than as a tragic event dramatized in a big political thriller. That’s not uninteresting as it goes — Syriana has a cool global-traveler vibe that’s enhanced by the decision to shoot at a multiplicity of real locations around the globe. And during the film’s second hour, as the drama is ratcheted up and the disparate storylines begin to coalesce, that coolness starts to pay off. By the film’s climactic sequence, a frantic and deadly affair that is observed in part through the impassive eye in the sky that governments deploy via satellite and in part out the window of a speeding SUV, Syrianahas become as deeply disturbing as any conspiracy thriller, even if it’s less satisfying than most of the good ones.
The Constant Gardener made dramatic hay by enlisting a villain — the multinational drug industry — that showed no qualms about the commission of heinous misdeeds against a continent of underrepresented and undervalued human beings. Syriana doesn’t go for so dramatic a shorthand. If there’s an evil empire in the piece, it’s the United States, which is seen enforcing a foreign policy that retards the pace of real progress toward human rights and economic self-sufficiency in the reason in favor of rewarding the U.S.-based energy industry. A key point, for instance, is the reaction to a potential deal to supply oil to China rather than the States. And, in a power struggle between two princes, the U.S. is seen propping up the heir that will be most friendly to U.S. economic interests rather than the one that has the bigger ambition to modernize his society and pull his people into the 21st century.
The real story is about how individual lives are impacted and altered as men struggle to do their jobs well, whether that means assassinating foreign leaders, hustling a big energy merger through due diligence, or simply using whatever leverage is at hand to close a deal. Syriana brings the political back to the plane of the personal, from the CIA agent turned pariah when it becomes politically expedient for his bosses to abandon him (an excellent George Clooney, wooly with beard and sporting a credible workingman’s approach to his job) to the government lawyer who makes so many fine negotiations in the process of “investigating” the merger of two energy firms that the whole business is revealed as a politically dictated charade (an intense Jeffrey Wright, mixing smooth assuredness and befuddlement with increasing overtones of self-loathing as he navigates the path out of the muck he’s gotten himself into). There’s a scene late in the film where Wright is seen jogging through his suburban Washington neighborhood; it’s a smooth Steadicam shot, notable for how striking an image it is in context, and Wright’s face is pressed into the corner of the frame – the bulk of the image is negative space dedicated to the fuzzy world around and behind him, representing the larger obligations that threaten to overwhelm him, or that he is running away from.
The lawyer character has an aging father at home to take care of. Matt Damon’s energy trader has a family that needs his paycheck. And Clooney’s spy really seems to believe in his country, until he realizes his country is snowing him. So, unlike The Constant Gardener, which turned on the nexus of A Good Woman’s Love, Syriana is eventually a movie about moral compromise. Who knows how it will play in Peoria, but I’m grateful for a movie that engages with the greater questions of just what we think we’re playing at in the world outside our national borders, and how our narrowly defined goals have far-reaching impact, perhaps unforeseen even by the moneymen who call the shots. It’s enough to make the global lower class consider taking up arms against its oppressors, a point that Gaghan isn’t too cautious to dramatize by depicting the indoctrination of an alienated young suicide bomber. Ultimately, though, Syriana isn’t interesting enough in terms of style or focused enough in terms of story — too many characters, too many separate storylines (and one was jettisoned during the editorial process!), and too much damned expository dialogue to process — to have the impact it craves beyond the intellectual and the theoretical. It’s a near miss, almost, but not quite, truly emotionally affecting — an admirable and engaging film that falls a bit short of its own mark.