“Syriana,” a long, elaborate geopolitical thriller from Stephen Gaghan, suffers from an unfortunate case of confusion. By proxy, it tars the Bush administration as a band of Nixonian cynics who collude with big oil companies to fleece the American people and traduce potential reformers in the Middle East. Simultaneously — and here’s where the confusion lies — it wraps this cynicism inside the mantle of neoconservatism.
In its anachronistic Left Coast ignorance of Washington-New York intellectual esoterica, the movie is a parody of realism that fails to pick its poison.
Let’s say Mr. Gaghan boiled “Syriana” down to its bullet-pointed essence and pitched it as an Op-Ed. (This would take all the fun out of it, but it’s a serious movie that seeks a serious audience, so bear with me.) The first main charge of this hypothetical editorial would make your head spin — in short, that people who think like Brent Scowcroft, the don’t-rock-the-boat skeptic from the first Bush administration, are to blame for getting us into Iraq.
The second claim won’t make your head spin; it will chop it clean off: The current Bush administration, which initiated, and insists on seeing through, a costly policy of regime change in Iraq, would secretly rather prop up dictators than eliminate them.
Probably no one outside the aforementioned Washington-New York complex will care to parse out these details. For the rest — for the pleasantly apolitical sane — “Syriana” is an exhilarating trot around the globe and an eye-opening walk through the halls of power and privilege, intricately tailored to please conspiracy-minded fans of such movies as 1975’s “Three Days of the Condor” and such TV shows as “The X-Files,” where the fate of the globe is in the grubby palms of a handful of white men with law degrees.
It starts in Tehran, where a ragged-looking George Clooney is in on a back-alley arms deal with, it appears, Islamist terrorists. Mr. Clooney (who executive-produced the movie) is CIA spook Bob Barnes, a character based on real-life agent Robert Baer (whose memoir inspired Mr. Gaghan’s script).
With his extensive experience in the Middle East, mainly Lebanon and Iran, and scruffy exterior (Mr. Clooney gained 30 pounds and grew a beard for the part), Barnes is a typical martyr-like figure of today’s CIA: His expertise is ignored, and his career betrayed, by morally compromised higher-ups and a rapacious international lawyer (the rakishly cunning Christopher Plummer).
On these shores, the movie’s long-simmering, multi-angled drama turns on the impending merger of two energy companies. Chris Cooper plays Jimmy Pope, the Bush-like chief executive of one of these companies. After his performance as a Bush-like cipher in John Sayles’ woeful “Silver City,” Mr. Cooper may soon feel exploited for his ability to act like a rich good ol’ boy.
The forces behind the merger cloak their intentions to make a profit (that this is wrong in some sense is simply assumed by Mr. Gaghan’s script) behind professions of free-market orthodoxy and democratic idealism. Tim Blake Nelson, another dependable bumpkin, plays the stooge in charge of a neocon-like outfit that is superficially dedicated to the liberation of Iran but, in practice, is a front for oil-and-gas interests.
Investigating the legal niceties of this merger is corporate lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a juicy character — he’s black, smart, timid, possibly ruthless — with a complicated homelife.
Mr. Gaghan’s balancing of the personal and global-political also works well in the case of Byron Woodman (Matt Damon), a financial analyst for a Geneva-based energy company who, after losing his young son to a pool accident, is seduced with visions of wealth and influence by the flint-eyed prince (Alexander Siddiq) of a Persian Gulf emirate.
Prince Nasir is eyeing his ailing father’s throne, as is his wastrel of a younger brother. The difference between the two siblings is that Nasir seeks to modernize his oil-rich country’s economy and reform its political system, whereas his brother (Akbar Kurtha) is content to be the jet-setting puppet of those soon-to-be merged oil-and-gas conglomerates.
Mr. Gaghan manages less successfully to jam in a by-the-numbers narrative about the evolution of a young Islamist. At the movie’s outset, Pakistani-born Wasim (Mazhar Munir) is laid off from a Persian Gulf oil plant; by the end he is an incipient terrorist, drunk on the anti-Western sermons of a fundamentalist cleric.
All these strands are eventually woven together in a crescendo of events that includes a CIA assassination and a USS Cole-style suicide attack.
A movie as convoluted, and as polemically loaded, as “Syriana” is bound to be disappointing — and, depending on your politics, maddening. It is, nonetheless, enjoyably stimulating to lose yourself in the whirl of its ambition.
RATING: R (Violence, including a scene involving torture; profanity)
CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Produced by Jennifer Fox, Georgia Kacandes and Michael Nozik. Written by Mr. Gaghan based on Robert Baer’s book “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.” Cinematography by Robert Elswit. Original music by Alexandre Desplat.
RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes.
WEB SITE: www.syrianamovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS