Months after it opened, a friend of mine and I were talking about Traffic – Steven Soderbergh’s film about the international drug trade, scripted by Stephen Gaghan and based on a prior BBC mini-series – and my friend offered how, to him, the film’s acclaim and controversy felt overdone. He didn’t feel Traffic said anything interesting or shocking or revelatory; it didn’t tell him anything he didn’t know already. I couldn’t challenge his personal taste – always a near-impossible thing to do – but I did observe how the film may not have been revelatory or groundbreaking to him because he went to frickin’ Dartmouth and has never spent a night in jail, known a moment of want or lived in enough pain that drugs would be the only possible way to feel better. His past – and his privilege – meant he lived in a world that is wildly different from the world most people live in; they also meant he probably had no way of perceiving his past or privilege, much as I doubt fish have a word for water.
I was reminded of my friend’s reaction to Traffic after Syriana, a similarly broad and ambitious film scripted – and, this time out, directed – by Stephen Gaghan. My friend’s detached words didn’t echo in my memory; they were spoken out loud by some of my fellow reviewers: “ ... Not that engaging … ” “… No real plot or through-line … ” and, yes, “ ... It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.” More often than not, the biggest enemies of engaged, political art are not on the far-Right; often, they’re on the near-Left. Most film writers operate out of a narrow comfort zone, thinking about a film only in the context of the thousands of films they’ve seen before and not in the context of the people who will actually pay to see it and the world they live in. The audience may not be as informed on current events as some of the people reviewing films, but they are also probably not as bored, blasé and bland about the ideas in the film as the seen-it-all scribblers picking at it with a thousand tiny knives. (And I too am guilty of the same, a thousand times over.)
I personally enjoyed Syriana as a film – it’s well-shot, well-acted, intellectually and emotionally involving and as confusing, complicated and irrational as the real world it captures. I also can’t think of a movie this year that had as much to say and was, at the same time, made with such a sense of art. Lots of people are going to find Syriana wanting because they’ll be seeing it purely through the lens of other films. Watch Syriana through the lens of the world, as a work of journalistic political fiction, and it’s fascinating, involving and thrilling. Or, more bluntly: Don’t think of Syriana’s swirling mix of plot lines and people chasing an ever-dwindling supply of oil as a semi-sequel to Traffic. Think of it as a partial prequel to Mad Max.
In the Persian Gulf, a small, wealthy oil-exporting country is shaping its own destiny – as the young Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), next line for the throne, grants natural gas drilling rights to Chinese interests and not the America company, Connex, that used to have them. Desperate to have somewhere, anywhere, to drill, Connex is hoping to merge with Killen – a small company which has somehow gained the rights to drill in Kazakhstan. The merger will need to be approved by the Justice Department, so Connex’s legal team, including tight-clenched lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffery Wright), are looking for trouble in the deal from the inside before Justice can find it from the outside. In Tehran, CIA man Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is drinking, dealing arms and arranging murder to maintain the status quo, while in Geneva financial analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is trying to surf on the waves of the global oil market so his clients – and he – can profit. And the Prince’s decision means that Pakistani foreign laborers Saleem Ahmed Kahn (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) lose their jobs working for Connex – and the right to stay in the country, which is why the local Islamic madrassa’s charity and community through Islam has such an appeal to Wasim.
And faster than you can say ‘Robert Altman,” the seemingly-disparate worlds of the characters come together, even if you may want to keep a scorecard near the finale to follow the betrayals and conflicts. But Syriana isn’t just artistically ambitious; it’s intellectually ambitious, too. That reveals itself in some less-than-elegant ways: Gaghan's script is a bit statistics-heavy, as various people inform us of such facts as “ … More money was spent on the syndication rights to the TV series Seinfeld than on the last Presidential election in the United States ...” or that “ … There are 10 million Muslims in America …” or how “ … two-thirds of Iran’s population is under 30.” Then again, how rare is it to see a film that has information to convey?
And at the same time, Gaghan’s script is never stuffy or inhuman. These characters are people, and we have heartfelt and natural scenes in the film – a father mourning the loss of his son, or where two young men are kicking a soccer ball around and shooting the breeze about the science of Spider-Man before they’re interrupted by the cleric who’s training them to be suicide bombers. It is also funny in a very real and human way, as when CIA man Barnes is listening to his son (Max Minghella) about how he’d be happier if his dad took a cushy desk job instead of having dad’s field postings impact his adolescence: “You know what Prom is like in Pakistan? Prom sucks.”
Comparisons to Traffic will be inevitable, and Syriana has some of Traffic’s weaknesses, just as it has some of that film’s strengths. In Traffic, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s transformation from trophy wife and soccer mom to Lady Macbeth felt rushed. So does Damon’s arc here, going from being an eyes-on-the-prize money manager with a shattered life to serving as the too-optimistic advisor to an embattled, reform-minded Middle Eastern ruler, like Lawrence of Arabia in an Armani suit. And many will suggest that Gaghan is just lifting styles and storytelling ideas from Traffic director Soderbergh (with capable help from director of photography Robert Elswit and editor Tim Squyers). I can’t say if I agree, but I can say that, frankly, there are far worse people to steal from. Syriana isn’t as propulsive as Traffic – probably because Traffic had plenty of people with guns to shove the plot along – but Syriana is also full of moments where the betrayers and killers don’t come with guns and knives or rope but instead bearing smiles and handshakes and fountain pens.
On a performance level, Gaghan gets great little moments out of character actors like David Clennon, Jamey Sheridan and Tim Blake Nelson. He also manages to put familiar faces in new light, such as Amanda Peet’s work as Damon’s wife, or Clooney’s puffy, pragmatic CIA man Barnes, whose middle-age paunch hides a will of cold steel, whose “good” work in the past is fading out of sight in a present defined by expediency and change. (When asked to address a group of policy-makers about the Middle East, Barnes is prepped by his boss Sheridan with iron-clad talking points reflecting the intelligence people want, not need, to hear: “Don’t chomp down on any bait. We’re fine. Iran is fine. Fine.”) Damon and Clooney may be the marquee names (and they may also have the lion’s share of action and emoting in the film), but Siddig, Munir and Wright give great performances as well.
Syriana isn’t going to have you sauntering out into the lobby singing a happy song about Bohemian life like some of the other films coming out at the end of the year; you won’t be speaking with breathless urgency about the beauty of the Kabuki-style costumes or how the majesty of the visual effects made a giant ape feel real. You will leave Syriana unsettled; you may leave it trying to untangle plot strands, or arguing with friends about what you just saw and what it just meant. Syriana is a big, bold movie full of ideas that also has a warm and real sense of humanity and provides more questions than answers. That realism – an uncertain film for uncertain times – is what truly makes Syriana the must-see film of 2005.