In writer-director Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, a complex, multilayered political thriller, oil is the driving force behind an intricate web of deception, murder and corruption. Using an interwoven story structure similar to that he used in his Oscar-winning Traffic screenplay, Gaghan offers a conspiracy-minded view of the interconnected world of oil sales, strife in the Middle East and duplicitous business endeavors.
With George Clooney as a burnt-out CIA operative, Syriana is a throwback to the politically charged films of the late '60s and '70s—movies like Three Days of the Condor and Network, which addressed volatile issues and corruption. In a post-9/11 era of tiptoe filmmaking, when few filmmakers other than Michael Moore want to make waves, Syriana is a bold—albeit left-leaning—work not afraid to spark discussion. While recent films like Good Night, and Good Luck have profound political underpinnings, even in a contemporary way, such films deal primarily with the past. Syriana is set in the here and now.
"It's about right now—it's about being alive and being American right now," said Gaghan in a recent phone interview. "In the wake of 9/11, the country's extremely precipitous response—the heightened rhetoric of 'evildoers' and 'crusades'—it was like I was sitting in the back of this car, it's called America and it starts to accelerate. My head jerks back, and I'm thinking, 'Where are we going? Who's driving?'"
Weaving an intricate tapestry of overlapping story and character arcs, Gaghan attempts to explain what is going on in the world today, as oil reserves quickly diminish and no one wants to be left in the dark, literally. In addition to introducing Clooney's disillusioned spook, Gaghan brings into play would-be suicide bombers, a forward-thinking Middle Eastern prince (Alexander Siddig), greedy oil tycoons, and an energy analyst (Matt Damon) numbed by a recent tragedy. Juggling so many characters and stories, any filmmaker runs the risk of either confusing audiences or dumbing everything down. Miraculously, Gaghan has crafted his film with the assumption that the choir he's preaching to is intelligent, while at the same time never leaving them feeling stupid.
Syriana is a smart thriller that rebukes the clichés and trappings normally associated with this genre. Anyone expecting a Tom Clancy-like caper may be disappointed. But those looking for a more gritty sense of reality will appreciate Gaghan's approach. "I tried to play against every single thriller convention, from the score to the action, to the fact that random shit just happens," explains the director. "Not everything has a cause and effect. The characters don't even know what's going on. The world is kind of a muddle. It is a dark, murky confusing place. I'm gonna dramatize that—there is no superhero who gets the big picture."
Some critics will no doubt deride Syriana as liberal propaganda. There's no denying the film made for an audience critical of the Bush administration and the role of big business in foreign policy, but Gaghan is careful not to paint this portrait in absolute black and white (or blue and red). "Any time you set out to reflect the world, if that's your goal, you're gonna end up with ambiguity," says Gaghan. "It's not black and white. Particularly if you're looking at a system, and the system becomes the thing you're after. It doesn't easily break into heroes and villains."
Rated R. Opens Friday, Dec. 9. Pioneer Place, Lloyd Cinema, Eastport, Division, Cedar Hills, Cornelius, Evergreen, Movies on TV, Tigard, Cinema 99, Cinetopia, City Center.