Available this week on video and DVD, Syriana is easy to admire but difficult to love. Those who liked "Traffic," for which screenwriter Stephen Geghan won an Oscar a couple of years ago, will understand the appeal of this film. Geghan lacks the experience of "Traffic's" director Steven Soderbergh, who is the executive producer of "Syriana." So the multiple narrative threads never get connected as clearlvy as in "Traffic," making this a much more challenging film to comprehend. Still, it could be argued"”and has been"”that any film about an enormously complex situation must be, well, enormously complex. If so, Gegahn richly succeeds. The situation here is the global oil market, which is, to say the very least, a hot topic and getting hotter. (Just ask anyone filling up"”and burning up!--at the pump, these days.) It would take a great deal more time and space than I have to recap the plot, and I'm not sure the effort would pay off, in any case. What focus there is likely comes to be on Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA operative whose life is based (roughly) on that of Bob Baer, author of the memoirs on which the film is (very) loosely based. Barnes is caught in the middle of an intrigue involving the merger of two oil companies. His knowledge of Arabic and of the shifting political allegiances of the Middle East makes him a soldier in the oil wars, though, as he is later told, one who never really understands his orders.
In contrast, young energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) does understand the big picture, but is a neophyte about human motives and means. His son's accidental death at a party opens up the floodgates of oil for his small energy trading company; it also turns Bryan's head about the value of his family. (The thematic opposition of money and family runs throughout the film.) His wife (Amanda Peet) leaves him, and Bryan dives even deeper into the welter of intrigues and power plays that, he believes, can make the world better. He becomes an adviser to a young Arab prince (played with a cool intelligence by Alexander Siddig) bent on reforming his country and rejecting the West's corrupting influences. (Another theme involves the interconnections and the clashes of these cultures.) At the end, his path crosses Bob's.
Meanwhile, a young attorney, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), investigates the oil company merger, uncovering the corruption and payoffs involved. He serves a number of masters, among them the head of his firm (Christopher Plummer) and the assistant U.S. Attorney General (David Clennon), who is also Bennett's former law professor. Bennett also takes care of his alcoholic father, who is, to say the least, not impressed by his son's success.
The three plot lines cross refer to each other, at points, though director Geghan never lingers long enough or stays in one location"”the settings, like the politics, are global"”for us to grasp the connection. In effect, the viewer is put in the position of Bob, Bryan, and Bennett, having only a part of the picture, and one which constantly shifts. We share their indeterminate lives, their frustrations, partial triumphs, losses.
And that, rather than the unsolvable tangle in which they find themselves, constitutes the film's appeal, I think. "Syriana" is scarcely an uplifting or optimistic movie: it didn't do particularly well at the box office, its all star cast, several Oscar nominations (Clooney won for Supporting Actor), and critical acclaim notwithstanding. But it drives home the human cost of the conflicts"”political, economic, societal"”that sweep up individuals, wittingly or not. It is appropriately rated "R" for language and violence.