You really have to go all the way back to the ’70s to find a film as blatantly defiant and ultimately fatalistic as Syriana Films like The French Connection were playing to full houses then, and audiences weren’t dominated by today’s target demo, the PG-13 crowd, an age group so lucrative that the entire industry tailors its offerings to suit its infantile tastes. Going to the movies back then didn’t necessarily mean pat endings and one-dimensional characters.
Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana recalls that time, and it does something more, it affords its audiences the luxury of using their brains.
Gaghan (who won a screenplay Oscar for Traffic) adapted the script from Robert Baer’s See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism and had enough people backing him (like Steven Soderbergh) to give him the kind of freedom he needed to get Syriana made. Without such backing, it’s tough to imagine this film being any big studio’s cup of tea, particularly since the line between big business and entertainment is increasingly blurred.
Syriana follows the complicated paths of the many different characters involved in terrorism – how it starts, what drives it, who is pulling the strings from on high, and how it, ultimately, affects ordinary citizens. The stories move quickly and the characters speak as if there were no stupid audience to explain the plot to. (As one of those stupid people, this reviewer is sure much of the plot will have to be understood in subsequent viewings, nevertheless, it was worth it).
George Clooney, who appears to be having his best year yet, with the success of Good Night, and Good Luck and now this, plays CIA agent Bob Barnes who is thrust into the middle of a power play between our government and its ties to big oil. (Sound familiar?) The agent is essentially an invisible man, or as Barnes’ son calls him, a “professional liar.” He is expendable – someone who must take the fall when things go wrong. Our government, no doubt from the top down, backs one prince over another – “the other,” it turns out, wants to build an infrastructure in his country and not let the Americans take over. The first son supports big oil and therefore becomes the new king.
The message here is that Americans are raping the natural resources in Middle East nations and the religious zealots fight against it to no effect, because the leaders are in the pockets of the US. These countries will eventually burn out because they don’t put profits back into their own economy but rather funnel it into ridiculous luxuries for their leaders.
Syriana comes at a time when the Iraq war is making less and less sense. It is a no-win situation. And an ultimately depressing one at that. We’re all imbedded now and there is no way out. Gaghan’s voice here is clear: Wake up, people. But whether it will reach the majority of Americans is another story. Mostly, the film will be preaching to the converted and assuage liberal angst. But can it make people aware of what’s really going on? It will depend on who wants to know and whether they care. We live in an empire and there’s a high price to pay for that.
Gaghan’s cast does astonishing work; there isn’t one weak link. Clooney is marvelous as the beaten down Barnes – and even though it’s tough to ugly him up, it is at least somewhat believable that he could be anything other than a golden god.
Syriana is similar to Traffic in that no one character is more important than any other – and takes a problem and examines it from all sides. Who is profiting, who is hurting, who makes the decisions, who is allied with whom? In Traffic it was the drug war, with Syriana it’s our co-dependent relationship with the Middle East.
But Syriana is more ominous than Traffic as it doesn’t come down to just saying no. We all use the resources that our government must play dirty to get. And the practices we employ to control other countries are terrifying; there are no international checks and balances. The United States gets to do whatever it wants.As a first-time director, Gaghan does a magnificent job of holding the story together and getting the most from his actors. He will have to do battle with those who will no doubt accuse him of having an agenda – but his work, so far, is artful enough to transcend politics and illuminate the human condition. Who could ask for anything more?