While perhaps a bit too dry and convoluted for some tastes, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is, IMHO, a top-notch political thriller that’s easily one of the best films of the year. Admitedly, the movie is missing some of the Soderberghian visual flourishes that made the very similar Traffic so memorable, and the movie definitely can be tough to follow. But, in a way, that’s part of its charm — Like the film’s protagonists, we only occasionally glimpse the shadowy tendrils of the beast that is Big Oil, and come to share their despair that it can ever be subdued. In sum, like the other recent Clooney outing, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana is both an intelligent, compelling work of cinema and a enthralling piece of social commentary, one that not only feels pertinent but necessary.
As you probably know, the movie jetsets around the globe following several facets of the oil trade and its consequences. In Beirut, an aging, disgruntled CIA agent (a stout George Clooney, resembling in Stephanie Zacharek’s words a “depressed circus bear”) starts to ask questions above his pay-grade about the collateral damage from a recent operation. In Geneva, after a family tragedy, a fresh-faced energy analyst (Matt Damon) becomes consigliere to the ambitious heir (Alexander Siddig) of a Middle-Eastern emirate. In Washington DC, a resourceful lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) begins due diligence work on an merger between two oil firms (the smaller headed by Chris Cooper). And, on the oil fields themselves, an increasingly desperate Pakistani emigrant (Mazhar Munir) begins to contemplate drastic action to change his fortunes, and those of his family.
Along the way, Syriana‘s narrative is further fractured by the comings and goings of other famous faces, including Amanda Peet as Damon’s suffering wife, William Hurt as another grizzled agency vet, Tim Blake Nelson as the poster child for Abramoff‘s America, and Christopher Plummer as an insider among insiders. But, even though Plummer comes closest to being the Cigarette Smoking Man of this particular conspiracy tale, Syriana doesn’t offer any quick fixes or easy answers to the often grim story that unfolds. Some of our heroes find redemption or closure, true, but others become resigned to their fate, or even corrupted. And, ultimately, there is no Big Reveal or cathartic Speaking-Truth-To-Power scene to offer solace to the audience — Instead, we’re confronted with a system that, for better or worse, lumbers on, oblivious to either the machinations or the protests of mere individuals.
Depressing, indeed, even despairing at times, this film still feels like a story that must be told. And while viewers may quibble with some of the details of Gaghan’s Tarbell-esque expose of the political economy of oil, hopefully most will agree: We need more movies like Syriana.