From time to time, high-ranking CIA mandarins will gather around in a bunker in deepest Langley, Virginia and play games about Middle Eastern regime change. They will choose a fictitious country and put it though its hypothetical paces in a series of political, industrial and military ‘what ifs’. The name the CIA chooses for the country in these games is “Syriana”.
Stephen Gaghan chose that name for his second film as director (his first was the little-known thriller Abandon in 2002) and indeed much of the plot of the movie Syriana centres on a change of regime in a fictitious, unnamed Middle Eastern country.
But Syriana is about a lot more than just putative Gulf politics. It is also about Big Oil, Peak Oil, Islamic fundamentalism, suicide bombers, congressional investigations, Washington lobbyists, the CIA, a shadowy “Committee to Liberate Iran”, the relationship between fathers and sons and it somehow also finds time to throw a taut thriller into the mix.
How Gaghan manages to weaves all these complex themes through five interlocking stories in 124 minutes is a work of art in itself. Gaghan won a best screenplay Oscar for Traffic and that film’s director Stephen Soderbergh chips in as executive producer of Syriana to help Gaghan work through the maze of multiple storylines and large casts. The closest thing to a lead character in the ensemble is a gritty, tubby and scruffy CIA operative Bob Barnes. He is played by the normally suave George Clooney (who piled on 35 pounds for the role in the spirit of de Niro in Raging Bull.) Barnes is fast approaching the end of his days in the field and has just one more assignment to complete before he can retire to the sinecure of a cushy desk job. That last role is to assassinate the independently minded Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) so that his more malleable younger brother will ascend the throne in the Gulf state and accede to American interests. These interests are represented by a newly merged oil company called Connex Killen.
The third thread follows the justice department investigation in the circumstances of the merger. It is the job of Connex Killen lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) to find out about the dirt on the deal before the Justice department does.
The fourth thread follows energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) who is swept up in events when hired by Prince Nasir to advise him on energy policy. The final most poignant thread follows Saleem (Shahid Ahmed) a young dirt-poor Pakistani migrant worker made redundant by the oil company who falls under the influence of a radical Muslim cleric.
Each of these threads has a father-son subplot which, although is rarely essential to the progression of the action, is thrown in to provide much needed warmth to an otherwise cynical story. The CIA operative lies about his work to his teenage son, Prince Nasir is in a Lear-like relationship with his father over the future of his kingdom. The lawyer lives with his alcoholic father. The energy analyst has a family tragedy and the migrant lives in a shantytown with his father far from the rest of his family.
It is the Pakistani migrant’s transformation that provides this film with much of its extraordinary power. He starts as a typical irreligious wise-cracking teenager more interested in football than fatwas. He becomes hardened by a gradual series of events. He loses his job and is threatened with deportation. Soldiers beat him up for no apparent reason. He falls under the influence of a charismatic cleric. The seeds are sown and he becomes a committed Islamic revolutionary. While this transformation is not inevitable, it is entirely feasible and we are not surprised by the outcome. This sympathetic humanising of a radical is likely to be displeasing to many but it shows how disturbingly easily it can happen. This is a rare and brave incursion beyond the usual hollow condemnation into the root causes of terrorism.
But the migrant is not the only pawn in this modern version of what the Victorians called The Great Game. Bob Barnes (played by Clooney who also was an executive producer) was also in this game, more powerful than a pawn perhaps, but still there to be sacrificed. He is the ultimate CIA field agent, an Arabic and Farsi speaking Middle East veteran, who unquestioningly carries out orders for his “thirty billion dollar business.” Bob is less successful as a bureaucrat who simply can’t be trusted to “stay on message”. Back in Washington to debrief on Iran, he is confronted by a forceful Condoleeza Rice-style politician and under pressure blurts out more truth about what is happening there than his bosses would like. He gets one last chance to redeem himself by assassinating Prince Nasir. Bob sets off to Lebanon to accomplish the deed and runs into hassles with Hezbollah and some torturers before his cover is blown. His bosses are anxious to avoid implication that the CIA authorised the hit and quickly proceed to “put some space” between the company and him.
The object of the assassination attempt is the elegant Oxford educated Prince Nasir, eldest son of the Emir, who is prepared to take his country on a collision course with US interests by pushing out the oil company Connex and selling oil to China. Washington powerbroker Dean Whiting (played with nicely understated menace by Christopher Plummer) meets the emir’s younger and more vapid son to plot the overthrow of his elder brother. They want to ensure the younger son becomes emir on the death of his obviously ailing father. He employs the energy analyst Woodward (Damon) to be an adviser. Their relationship is complicated by a Woodward family tragedy that occurs on the Prince’s property. The Prince buys him off and their no holds barred dialogues are riveting viewing. Matt Damon has a Boy Next Door quality that is occasionally irritating but he brings just right amount of intelligence and naivety into this role.
Back in Washington, the most complex thread of the film is battle to confirm the merger of two Oil companies Connex and Killen. Bennett Holiday is the lawyer at the centre of the maelstrom of legal (and illegal) activity. Jeffrey Wright plays the role stoically and his quiet dignity allows him to get results. The audience is drawn into the high political games. We inhale the stench of Washington politics where ‘everyone is innocent until investigated.’ Corruption is uncovered only if it used as a bargaining chip. Who really rules this internecine empire? Is this the legislative or the judicial branch of government? Is it Big Oil or is it their lobbyists? It is the military or the CIA? Who knows, maybe what the film is telling us is that it is all too complicated for any one power to rule. Syriana asks more questions than it answers but very few Hollywood films have asked as many cogent and pressing questions in two short hours.
Despite their raucous name, Yahoo! are deadly serious,
And Google “does no harm” but wants to rules the earth
where system software makes Microsoft imperious
They’re breaking webs and windows from Patagonia to Perth
Gates hates killer apps from Apple’s great Job
Big Blue’s lotus position: “To be or not to DB2 isn’t tricky”
Join the dotcoms the shape Nasdaq thought a boom not a blob
Or live a hippie Linux life and share your open wiki
Watch them work like a Trojan and spread like a virus
See their spyware leap over your great walls of fire
Clash online with flamers and download movie pirates
or post a chat to bloggers with advertising links for hire
But wherever you meander through life’s tabs and shifts
Remember to be wary of geeks bearing GIFs
Haiku (a short history of the invention of detergent)
Soap flakes left wash grey
Proctor gambled coming Tide
Would turn whites to right