Credit: Syriana: Glen Wilson

Syriana has a lot of big, important things to say about big, important things, and it says them with a sense of urgency. This dense, talky, proudly complicated adult drama of geopolitical intrigue weighs in on the amoral realities of covert CIA operations, Middle Eastern politics, global oil business, and U.S. government antitrust investigations — the whole military-industrial ball of wax. Indeed, the point of Syriana appears to be that the whole lousy, corrupt, oil-producing and -consuming world is a ball of wax, ready to melt.

The movie tells interrelated stories in knotted loops of simultaneity and jagged shards of documentary-style realism, with conspiracy on its mind and the piecemeal structure of Traffic as its screenwriting template, in good part because Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the Oscar-winning Traffic script for Steven Soderbergh, here writes and directs, too. It’s as earnestly, politically left-leaning as Jarhead is coyly apolitical; it’s also the kind of movie that requires a viewer to work actively for comprehension, and to chalk up any lack of same to his or her own deficiency in the face of something so evidently smart.

But while I’m all for political dramas that take stands rather than feign neutrality, what Syriana forgets to provide is the one thing that makes any movie, however difficult, easy to love: emotional empathy. Like the title itself — think-tank talk for a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East — this is a working paper of ideas driven by hypothesis, rather than a compelling drama driven by compassion.

And while those with an eye for vast left-wing conspiracies are welcome to believe that Gaghan planned all along to make a movie shaped like a big-picture that fails to take into account small-picture human needs, I am not one of those conspiracy junkies; I think the absence of soul is just the filmmaker’s big gaffe.

Consider George Clooney as Bob Barnes, a veteran CIA man who serves as one of the character tentpoles of Gaghan’s construction. Bob’s got the thickened gut of a middle-aged company spook slowed down by years of routine (even if the routine involves assassination), and Clooney, who grew his own morose gut and beard for the part, is nothing if not generous in his habitation of such a shady yet loyal, freewheeling yet lonely man. (The actor’s commitment to politically engaged movies, in this as well as Good Night, and Good Luck, is one of the most effective uses of his well-earned stardom.)

But for all we see of Bob, we know nothing at all about the guy, except that having been arbitrarily double-crossed by a field contact during the course of a mission, he now finds himself just as arbitrarily made a scapegoat by his own CIA handlers, who want to distance themselves from such a liability. We watch Matt Damon, as an open-faced go-getter of an energy analyst, negotiate business with a Middle Eastern prince (Alexander Siddig), and Jeffrey Wright, as a Washington attorney, work on a merger between two American oil companies, and there’s no reason given for the double-dealing, power plays, and American capitalist thuggery that shape the landscape. (What little humanity this trio of clueless, overmatched American men retains is conferred by fleeting interaction with kin; in the case of Wright’s ambitious lawyer, his private burden is an embarrassing drinking bum of a father. And he handles the old man with much the same distraction shown by Michael Douglas as a drug czar with an addicted daughter in Traffic.)

The same schematic shorthand goes, by the way, for the Middle Easterners involved, who are less fallible men tripped up by the modern (and specifically American) world than walking position statements: corrupt Gulf-country prince backed by American oilmen versus his reform-minded brother, or long-suffering migrant Pakistani oil worker versus his angry son recruited by nuclear-weapon-toting extremists.

Syriana makes a point of circling the globe, with scenes shot in Geneva, Dubai, London, etc. — it’s a picture that displays datelines as a show of geopolitical bustle. And the speeches of even the most passing players are honed to draw blood — Chris Cooper as a scheming oilman, Christopher Plummer as the head of a powerful law firm, Amanda Peet in a slicing performance as Damon’s distressed wife. But what do those speeches say? They say, We’re talking about big, important things, so pay attention — and then make it a challenge to do so.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (George Clooney); Best Original Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan)

  • Movie
  • 126 minutes