If you take anything away from Syriana, it might be this: Global dependence on oil is insanely complex, guided by shady deals and murky violence, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Except, perhaps, to make a convoluted Oscar-chasing holiday movie about it. Syriana was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who seems to have risen to grab the crown of Hollywood’s Political Truth-Teller that Oliver Stone dropped long ago. The problem is that Gaghan, whose screenplay for the similarly conscientious and overpopulated Traffic won an Oscar, lacks Stone’s skill at marshalling great chunks of data and dozens of characters and forging a rousing masterpiece (see JFK). Gaghan needed either an extra hour (ideally, an eight-episode HBO series) or fewer characters. Syriana probes a significant subject but treats its people as mere stick figures carrying exposition from place to place.
Who, for instance, is Bob Barnes? As played by a husky, bearded George Clooney, Bob is a loyal if exhausted CIA veteran, a flabby moth flying too close to the flame. Bob tells the truth about the Middle East, but the people in power have too much at stake in the oil fields. Bob is loosely based on the actual retired CIA agent Robert Baer, who, in his current status as film critic, has praised Syriana‘s “accuracy.” Maybe so, but I’d hate to think Baer in real life is as colorless as Bob Barnes is written. Clooney, an old hand at casual masculine authority, does what he can to make Bob interesting, but the character is little more than a martyr.
A prominent Texas oil company loses its gas-drilling bid in the Middle East to the Chinese. Another company cozies up to Kazakhstan and wins drilling rights there. The two companies merge, and various people — the powerful and powerless, their motives often far from clear — buzz around the money. The talk (a lot of it) in Syriana is very obscure and knowing; Gaghan does catch the way powerful men must address each other across glass tables or over cigars. The movie acknowledges the ambition of younger players like Matt Damon’s energy analyst (who turns a personal tragedy into a cash register), Jeffrey Wright’s Washington attorney (who keeps having to go home to his sourly disapproving dad), and Alexander Siddig’s shrewd Prince Nasir (who’s willing to do business as long as military occupation isn’t in the contract).
The saturnine Alexander Siddig, projecting mystery and intelligence, steals the film. But his character is as ill-defined as any other. We meet two laid-off Pakistani field workers (Mazhar Munir and Sonnell Dadral) who fall under the thrall of an Egyptian and become suicide bombers, and Gaghan obviously means them to be two of the many threads that make up the huge codependent web of oil mastery (violence in Gulf nations keeps the political hot potato rolling and is good for business). But their story could be a movie in itself, and the scrap of screen time they get isn’t enough for Gaghan to develop a plausible shift from hard-luck guys to terrorists. Everyone else labors under the movie’s weight, too — Matt Damon’s family-man character seems to capitalize on his tragic loss within minutes of the funeral, and poor Amanda Peet, as his wife, has nothing to do except look stricken. (She doesn’t even get a great “I know you’re an asshole but I’m staying with you because the lifestyle is worth it” speech like the one she skewered Ben Affleck with in Changing Lanes.)
Like Traffic, Syriana is aimed at the middle-aged, upper-middle-class white audience and structured as a position paper: This is why you should care about The War on Drugs or Our Dependence on Oil. Also like Traffic, the movie — liberal as it tries to be — draws on xenophobia. In Traffic, the sucker-punch message was that if drugs aren’t decriminalized, your white daughter will sleep with black men. Syriana says that if we don’t kick our oil addiction, our corporations and politicians will hop into bed (figuratively) with swarthy, corrupt Arabs. And both end up saying that the problem is too big for you to solve, anyway, so you might as well go home and hug your kids. Gaghan wants credit for merely pointing out the problem. Duly noted. In that spirit — and in the truth-telling spirit of Bob Barnes — I must point out that Gaghan, however well-intentioned, is better suited to writing op-eds than to crafting movies with characters we can care about.