By JONATHAN CRIBBS
Republished from the Dec. 8, 2005, issue of The Diamondback in College Park, Md.
One thing is clear after watching Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana”: “Traffic,” the expansive drug war drama Gaghan penned in 2000, was mere kid’s stuff. If “Traffic” was Gaghan’s baby, “Syriana” plays like the grown up, post-Sept. 11, paranoid and speed-addicted version of it. The film hopscotches around the globe like a hyperkinetic kangaroo – oil industry experts in Switzerland, CIA missions in Beirut, oil barons in Houston, poverty-stricken workers in the Middle East, parties in Spain and Georgetown and the list goes on and on endlessly.
At a screening in downtown Washington Monday night, hundreds of 30- and 40-somethings crowded into a large theater for a special look-see at The New George Clooney Movie or That New Matt Damon Movie.
They got neither.
There’s simply so much going on in “Syriana” that none of its marquee players find more than 20 minutes of screen time. What you get instead is a brilliant, frazzled look at “Gaghan’s” interpretation of how oil shapes U.S. foreign policy, the corporate world, international politics and beyond from a myriad of storylines. Plot here (and there are many) is secondary. “Syriana” is a movie that demands your attention with explosions and cityscapes and desert panoramics and rich men in nice suits screaming at each other across long tables of rich mahogany — and then it spends almost two hours doing its very best to drag you along in its sprint to the climax. It’s the kind of movie that’s going to leave half of its audience in the dust, scratching their heads about this character or that storyline and pieces of dialogue when the end credits start rolling.
Clooney (“Three Kings”), the most bankable star in “Syriana,” plays Bob Barnes, a CIA spook who roams the Middle East on missions of bartering, blow-upping, kidnapping and negotiating. Clooney gained a considerable amount of weight to play the paunchy part, and when he’s tortured while trying to set up a hit on a Gulf prince, it’s clear this is the most dedication Clooney’s ever given to a role.
Damon plays an energy analyst in Geneva and lives with his wife (Amanda Peet) and two children. His energy trading company becomes the primary financial adviser to Prince Nasir, who Barnes is plotting to kill, and the prince’s wealth is primarily sourced in — you guessed it — oil.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, a merger between two major oil companies, Connex and Kileen, is brewing. And they want to get their hands on Prince Nasir’s oil contracts too, and they’re willing to fight, claw and bribe their way into a deal, even if that means the course of foreign governments to do it.
So the meddling, corporate and governmental, begins. Washington lawyers and Pakistani oil workers get caught up in the bureaucratic mix, most notably Mazhar Munir, who plays Wasim, a laid-off Gulf oil worker who joins a radical Muslim group out of desperation.
I’d love to say these parts are wonderfully acted because, well, they are and they must be. An off-kilter performance in a film like “Syriana” would threaten to destroy it by distracting viewers from such a tightly-woven quilt of narratives. But the film moves at such breakneck speed that none of the performances are particularly memorable — and I don’t think that’s important.
“Syriana” should be convoluted. That’s part of its allure. Its ambition, its resistance to dumb itself down and trust its audience, is admirable. It’s as if Gaghan indirectly shows viewers that because there are so many people and corporations and countries with so many vastly different vested interests in oil around the Earth, it’s no surprise we’re left with such a miasma of corruption.
This is the sort of go-for-broke cinema that rarely makes it through a major studio to the big screen. “Syriana” isn’t a nice film or a comforting one, and it’s certain to infuriate as many viewers as it will inspire.
But it’s the kind of movie that gets people talking.
And that makes it one of the best movies of 2005.