Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers
Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan
George Clooney wants you to know that he’s got gravitas. To prove it, he packed on an extra 35 pounds for his latest roles. In Good Night, and Good Luck, a film he directed, he plays Fred Friendly, the portly television producer who worked closely with Edward R. Murrow at CBS. Now, in Steven Gaghan’s Syriana, a film Clooney helped produce, he pads about the oven-hot Middle East in a full-face beard, looking like a miserable, overfed zoo bear. He is Bob Barnes, a fictional character based on Bob Baer, a disaffected former CIA operative. Since Baer has looked quite trim and upbeat in his recent television appearances, Clooney’s decision to play him as a morose fatty seems strange. Has he succumbed to Oscar fever? Getting fat for art has become Hollywood’s ne ultra plus demonstration of thespian integrity. Robert DeNiro and Charlize Theron have won Oscars for flaunting flab on screen; maybe Clooney will also.
I mention the fat factor because, like Clooney, Syriana is bloated with its own gravitas. The film begs to be rewarded for its seriousness. It has the look and feel of a gritty, no-holds-barred dramatization of America’s fatal involvement with Middle East oil politics, but, like Clooney, with his expanded waistline and ponderous fatman gait, the film is an ungainly attempt to limn the reality of its subject. Most of its missteps are individually negligible but, taken collectively, rather irritating. For instance, Clooney’s CIA field agent has been on the job for 27 years, yet he is scandalized to learn that the bureaucrats in Langley occasionally put self-serving politics above mission objectives. Would such a veteran really be surprised that his office-bound bosses were liable to become miffed when he told them bluntly that their homespun theories did not reflect life in the Third World? Then there are the howlers. In one startling scene, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), an Oxford-educated sheik and emir-in-waiting, holds a meeting with his supporters. Sitting cross-legged on a sumptuous carpet in his snow-white Arabic robes, he implores his similarly garbed followers, with Bernard Lewis reasoning, to consider why their country and Arabs generally are losing their place in the world. Surely they understand that, by refusing to embrace democracy, parliamentary government, and women’s equality, they are consigning themselves to history’s dustbin. When his 20 listeners give unhesitating assent to his propositions, you know Gaghan is either a daft dreamer or a hypocrite. If I had to bet, I would say the latter. I suspect he wanted to head off charges that he is an Islamophobe. After all, his film depicts other Muslim leaders as ruthless kleptomaniacs plundering their countries’ resources with heartless disregard for their people’s needs. It is to be expected, I suppose, that he would want us to know that there are Arab potentates who are all right, really—especially those who went to Oxford and speak proper English. His noble sheik reminds me of the noble Mexican cop in his earlier film, Traffic. Despite living in Tijuana, a city infamous for its bottomless corruption, this lawman is willing to put himself and his family at lethal risk to help the FBI bring down the narco thugs in power. For a reward, he only wants a pledge that the Americans will build a baseball field for Tijuana’s boys. Girls, too—I cannot remember exactly—but I am sure that, in the interest of American acceptability, Gaghan purged the officer of any vestigial machismo.
Despite such ethnocentric lapses, Syriana has much to recommend it. At the very least, it serves as a wake-up call. When it comes to the tedious realities of oil finance and politics, we are all too liable to snooze, as Gaghan implies in a particularly caustic exchange between Arab and American. It is a scene in which Gaghan announces his purpose indirectly. Matt Damon, playing a hotshot oil-industry analyst (“I work in derivatives,” he announces with the kind of insouciance Andrew Carnegie would have appreciated), is trying to persuade Nasir to adapt to new market exigencies, including the region’s diminishing oil supply. The sheik who seems to have been half-listening to Damon’s spiel turns on him and asks what American power brokers really think of his countrymen. Exasperated, Damon angrily shoots back, “They think a hundred years ago you were lopping one another’s heads off in the desert and a hundred years from now you’ll be doing it again.” Smiling faintly, the sheik responds with a command, “Tell me something I don’t know already.” But for all his ironic hauteur, the prince is wrong. We all need to be reawakened to what we think we know now and again, especially if it is a reality immediately in front of our half-closed eyes. And this Gaghan does well, if a bit more elliptically than necessary.
Gaghan’s take on the oil industry is that it is much the same as the drug trade. In a recent interview on Chris Matthews’ Hardball on MSNBC, he compared cheap oil to crack cocaine. It is a substance that has seduced America into a century-long addiction, and, now that it is becoming too expensive, we do not know how to rid ourselves of the destructive habit. Worse, those in power do not want us to give it up. It is too profitable for the insiders: oil executives, politicians, lawyers, and regulators. Even environmentalists stand to lose, should we give up oil dependency too quickly. With big oil as the bogeyman, the do-gooders can always scare up funds for their enobling causes. And those among them who have the necessary managerial skills can enter the federally subsidized clean-up business. As with illicit drugs, an incredibly complex system of rewards has developed around oil over the years, and those living off its largesse are loath to see the party end, even now that oil’s dangers have become vastly more urgent than escalating prices and environmental pollution. Our intervention in Middle Eastern affairs on behalf of our oil interests has given the Muslim world reason to hate us. Furthermore, the profits they have garnered from selling their oil has given them the means to strike at us. Yes, we know all this, but it somehow recedes from our awareness in the press of daily events until a new price hike at the gas pump temporarily reminds us. Rising prices, however, have not been enough to prompt sufficient outrage among Americans. Incredibly, with nearly 30 years of warning signals, we are still not ready to force the issue and demand alternative energy sources. We have been asleep at the wheel, our tank on low. Gaghan’s film performs one of drama’s traditional purposes: It awakens us to the urgency of what we already know.
To render the tangle of interests oil has produced around the world, Gaghan has assembled multiple narrative threads, each telling its separate yet connected story. Clooney’s burnt-out spy and Damon’s financial wizard are joined, on the home front, by two Texan oil companies cutting a suspicious deal. One is a behemoth named Connex; the other, a tiny operation named Killen led by former wildcatter Jimmy Pope (played by Chris Cooper with rascally ferocity). The company names are comically chosen. Killen has made a killing in Kazakhstan, bribing government officials to gain exclusive drilling rights to the country’s oil fields. This prompts Connex to connect with Killen. After losing its long-standing drilling rights to a Chinese concern in Nasir’s country, the Connex CEO decides to get in on the Kazakhstan deal by merging with Killen. This, however, does not set well with the Department of Justice, whose attorneys hire the law firm of Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer at his oiliest best) to perform a due-diligence investigation. But, as the investigation proceeds, the Justice Department attorneys discover that the deal is so “balance positive” for the U.S. of A. that they had better not undo it after all. To save face, they cut their own deal with Whiting’s investigator, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a stolid, close-to-the-vest black achiever who knows only too well how to play Whiting’s white-man game. He offers to supply the government counsel with just enough evidence to prosecute sacrificially two lesser players in the intrigue for appearance’s sake. Meanwhile, Whiting has been retained by someone else, whose identity we never learn. It could be the current administration, the CIA, the National Security Administration, our own home-grown oil cartel, or some unholy combination of the above. Whoever it is, Whiting undertakes to scuttle Nasir’s elevation to emir by pressuring and bribing his aging father to install his younger and considerably more malleable son. Nasir has made the critical error of trying to get out from under American interests by doing business with the Chinese. For this breach of etiquette, he begins to be called a terrorist by the bureaucrats at Langley, who give Barnes a new mission. As his superior puts it, “It’s one that fits your specific skill set.” He is to have Nasir assassinated.
From this point, the film turns conventional, even including an exciting race to its nearly surprising climax, an event that almost manages to bring the film’s various plot shards into kaleidoscopic focus. One of these shards seems a difficult fit, at first, but it falls into place chillingly at the conclusion. It concerns a Pakistani guest worker in Nasir’s oil fields. He is dismissed when the Chinese company takes over and quickly finds himself impoverished and without prospects in a strange land whose officials enjoy pushing him around every chance they get. He is a perfect candidate for local Islamic fundamentalists, who soon have him convinced that his woes have roots in the West, which is not wholly untrue. And so another suicide bomber is born.
With all these interests and intrigues in play, Gaghan hopscotches among his principals, giving us vivid but deliberately incomplete glimpses of their various machinations. He has justified this storytelling method on the grounds that it fairly reflects the opacity of the oil-industry dealings that befuddle the American public whenever they try to make sense of them. Still, I could not help wondering whether Gaghan was obfuscating matters so that he could cover gaps in his knowledge under a blizzard of abbreviated details. Whatever the case, I came away from the film thinking there was a bit less to it than meets the eye.
What does emerge rather clearly is this: Oil has unleashed an insatiable and deadly greed that corrupts everyone it touches, innocent and villainous alike. It is a force that promises to destroy us by several means: impossible cost, encompassing pollution, virulent terrorism, and outright war. There is only one escape: We must break the addiction. While this is not news, it bears saying again and again.
I have made fun of Clooney’s and Gaghan’s gravitas lust; nevertheless, I respect their attempt to deal with issues other filmmakers studiously ignore. I only hope writers and directors with a stronger hold on reality will be inspired by their success to make films of their own and that the studios will see the wisdom—financial and otherwise—of supporting them.