Did you ever wonder where that stuff sloshing around in your gas tank came from, the various pipelines it had to go through to get there? Syriana may not have all the answers, but it sure does pose some provocative questions. And it poses them in such a way as to suggest that, given enough Venn diagrams, we might actually be able to understand the oil industry. Racking up frequent-flyer miles, this geopolitical thriller turns the entire world into an elaborate board game, the rules for which are constantly being rewritten. You may even lose yourself in its multistranded, labyrinthine plot on occasion. I did. But that only contributes to the movie's eerily suggestive power, the sense that nobody in the world has all the pieces to this ever-shifting puzzle. And yet the oil keeps flowing.
And the players keep playing. There are so many of them that you almost need a scorecard to tell them apart. And they include Texas oilmen, Washington lawyers, Arab sheiks, European traders and ' those old reliables ' CIA agents. Looking considerably worse for wear, having put on 35 pounds and wiped that smirk off his face, George Clooney plays a spy who would like to come in from the cold but must first perform one final mission on behalf of the free world: assassinate an Arab prince who's poised to become his oil-rich country's new emir. The prince, should he succeed in maneuvering past his brother, who's next in line to the throne, would institute all sorts of reforms beneficial to his people. Needless to say, this sets off alarms at a certain headquarters located in Langley, Va.
But that's only one piece of the puzzle. Another is the big Texas oil company that, having lost a major contract to the Chinese, now seeks to merge with a smaller Texas oil company that has somehow ' probably through bribes ' won the drilling rights to oil fields in Kazakhstan. And another is the powerful D.C. law firm that will help that big Texas oil company grease the wheels of justice, particularly the wheels turning at the Justice Department, which must approve the merger. Like The Da Vinci Code, Syriana posits conspiracies within conspiracies, all aimed toward the goal of keeping the price of oil exactly where it should be. And if that means hanging the occasional conspirator out to dry, well, that's part of the price of oil, too.
Have I forgotten anybody? Oh, there's Hezbollah, holed up in Beirut, plotting terrorist acts. When Clooney's spook tries to hire them to assist with his foreign-policy initiative, he winds up in their torture chamber ' a scene that will have you on the edge of your seat but not (trust me) biting your fingernails. And there are the millions of foreign workers who actually extract the oil from beneath the Arabian desert, two of whom we follow as they lose their jobs, thanks to that oil-company merger, then fall under the sway of a Muslim imam who sees a bright future for them in the sweet hereafter. If I'm not mistaken, the explosive they use to blow up an oil-storage facility toward the end of the movie is the same one that Clooney delivered to a Tehran arms dealer toward the beginning of the movie. Small world, isn't it?
Syriana was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who also wrote the script for Traffic, which did for the drug trade what Syriana does for the oil business. In both cases, Gaghan did a tremendous amount of research, and you can sense his wanting to squeeze it all in, find a place for everything. The movie might have been better off if he hadn't tried for so much of the Big Picture, which turns out to consist of lots and lots of interlocking Little Pictures. Or maybe he should have taken more time, spread the movie out over three hours (or four) instead of two. As it stands, it feels like a miniseries that's been compressed, condensed. And one of the things that got sacrificed, perhaps deliberately, is emotion. More a systems analysis than a drama, Syriana isn't exactly what you'd call touchy-feely.
But it does have a personal dimension, even a subtext that seems to be telling us something about fathers and sons. The Clooney character's son seems tired of having George Smiley for a father. And Jeffrey Wright plays an up-and-coming Washington lawyer whose drunken father seems tired of having Scooter Libby for a son. But it's Matt Damon, as a looking-for-the-main-chance oil trader based in Geneva, who wins the father-son sweepstakes. When one of his sons accidentally drowns in the swimming pool of the emir's luxurious resort, he takes a moment to grieve, then uses the karmic debt to land a consulting contract with the emirate. In Syriana, fathers betray sons, sons betray fathers, and daughters...well, there aren't any daughters. They don't call it the old boys' network for nothing.
Luckily, the actors Gaghan recruited to play the old boys are working at the top of their game. Clooney proves there's something left when he removes the glamour-boy charm. Damon finds an outlet for that eager-beaver drive that radiates from every pore of his body, tempering it with the anger we haven't seen much of since Good Will Hunting. And Christopher Plummer, as a lawyer/lobbyist with more power than a president ever dreamed of, is a case study in carefully doled-out venom, snipping roses in his Georgetown garden as if rehearsing his next political castration. Oh, and a special shout-out to Timothy Blake Nelson, who, as the head of something called the Committee to Liberate Iran, gets to deliver the movie's requisite greed-is-good oration. "Corruption," he says, "keeps us safe and warm."
And maybe it does keep us warm, those of us who can afford to pay our heating bills. Still, it's hard to imagine viewers not feeling a slight chill as Syriana unfolds before their eyes. Made with the detachment of a cold-blooded killer, it harks back to the paranoid thrillers of the '70s, movies like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. It also harks back to the Costa-Gavras thrillers of the '60s and '70s, Z and State of Siege, procedurals that fanned out to investigate entire milieus. Of course, the real comparison is to a novel (take your pick) by John Le CarrÃ. Mr. Cloak-and-Dagger was supposed to be out of a job when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down ' no more Cold War to set the intelligence agencies in motion. But Le CarrÃ knew better. "Are you out of your mind?" he once said to an interviewer who inquired about his coming demise. "The trouble is now beginning."