George Clooney as Robert Barnes
Matt Damon as Bryan Woodman
Jeffrey Wright as Bennett Holiday
Alexander Siddig as Prince Nasir
Amanda Peet as Julie Woodman
Chris Cooper as Jimmy Pope
Max Minghella as Robby Baer
Christopher Plummer as Dean Whiting
Tim Blake Nelson as Danny Dalton
Jamey Sheridan as Terry George
Tom McCarthy as Fred Franks
William Hurtas Stan Goff
Viola Davis as Marilyn Richards
William Charles Mitchell as Bennett Holiday, Sr.
Mazhar Munir as Wasim Ahmed Khan
Shahid Ahmed as Saleem Ahmed Khan
Sonnell Dadral as Farooq
As important now as “Three Days of the Condor” or “The Manchurian Candidate” were in their time, “Syriana” does for the oil industry what “Traffic” did for the drug trade.
The workings of an intricate international oil deal involving billions of dollars and thousands of players is seen through the eyes of a few individuals, including rogue CIA operative Robert Barnes (George Clooney), an energy analyst who recently lost a son (Matt Damon), a lawyer involved in the merger of two huge oil companies (Jeffrey Wright), and a young immigrant oil worker (Mazhar Munir) who lost his job due to the merger.
After writing Steven Soderbergh’s award-winning “Traffic,” Stephen Gaghan would probably like everyone to forget about his directorial debut, the Katie Holmes thriller “Abandon.” “Syriana” might be just what the doctor ordered, since it returns Gaghan to the intelligent, socially conscious writing that got him that Oscar five years ago.
On the other hand, it may be too intelligent for its own good, because only those who keep up with world economics, the oil industry and the situation in the Mideast might be able to keep up with the film’s set-up that introduces dozens of players in what is essentially four separate related stories. (You know you’re in trouble when the production notes include a scorecard listing all of the actors, the characters they play and their relationships; I feel sorry for anyone who has to figure all of this out without that extra help.)
Most of the story involves the oil drilling rights in a country neighboring Iran called Kazakhstan. In D.C., two enormous oil companies are about to merge to share those rights, and lawyer Bennett Holiday (Wright) has to insure things go smoothly despite encountering corruption involving an organization called the Committee to Liberate Iran that seems to be at cross purposes to what he’s been hired to do. The American government has assigned the CIA to take care of some potential “problems” in the deal, which they turn over to their weathered field agent Bob Barnes (Clooney) who has a reputation for getting his hands dirty. In Geneva, Bryan Woodman, an idealistic energy analyst who is married with two children, has become the economic advisor to Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the son of the emir of Kazakhstan, both unaware of the skullduggery going on back in Washington. At the bottom of the oil industry totem pole is Mazhar Munir and his father, immigrant oil workers from Pakistan who have lost their jobs due to the merger, so Munir suddenly finds himself finding faith among a group of Muslim fundamentalists.
Unless you already know a lot about the government’s dealings in the Mideast in terms of oil and leadership of countries, you might stare blankly at the screen as a lot of politicians and corporate heads babble to each other in code, but if you pay close attention, things will be that much more interesting when the stories start to collide. Of course, with all the talk of the Bush family and their relationships in Saudi Arabia, Haliburton and all the other catch phrases mentioned on CNN, it’s hard not to pay attention, because it really seems like you’re watching real life events unfold. It makes for an interesting counterpoint to “Jarhead,” showing a lot of the behind-the-scenes of a major oil deal, which we rarely get a chance to see.
Obviously, the most interesting story is that of Bob Barnes, a character loosely based on real-life CIA agent Robert Baer, whose novel inspired Gaghan’s film. Although his storyline is like something right out of the “Bourne” movies, it’s far more grounded in real life, as George Clooney plays down his looks with a rough and unkempt appearance more becoming a field agent. As much as Barnes is an enormous asset for the CIA, the organization tries to keep him at an arm’s distance so his actions don’t come back to haunt them. In one scene, he is tortured so violently that it makes the Van Gogh scene in “Reservoir Dogs” seem tame by comparison; it’s excruciating to watch, but quite effective.
The next most interesting story is that of the young Pakistanis who end up getting involved in the terrorist activities of a Muslim faction, a storyline that follows a similar path as “Paradise Now,” though a lot subtler in its approach.
Besides Clooney and Damon, who are always great, there are a lot of strong actors, particularly Geoffrey Wright, who once again changes everything about himself to play Bennett, and there are also some nice smaller roles for William Hurt, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer and even Tim Blake Nelson in a non-comedic role. The lesser known Arab actors bring a sense of realism to their storyline, but the true standout performance belongs to Alexander Siddig, last seen in Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”, who brings his strength as an actor to the role of Prince Nasir, a man with many strong ideas to save his country, most of them that involve turning their back on the United States.
As confused as you may be by the abundance of characters and concurrent storylines, they do start coming together and things start to make sense as it builds to an amazing final act that’s just one climax after another. Once you’ve figured out what is going on, you’re likely to be kept on the edge of your seat, much like you might while watching a Jack Ryan or Jason Bourne film. The thing is that Gaghan has done such a good job setting this story in a setting as close to reality as possible, that it makes all of it that much scarier.
The Bottom Line:
Stephen Gaghan has written another complex, intelligent thriller so relevant to what’s going on in the world today that it’s hard not to sit up and pay attention despite how long it might take the non-Mensa members to figure out what’s happening.
Syriana opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, and nationwide on December 9.