Syriana is like a fascinating Social Studies class – if such a thing ever existed – and it works exactly like that. Endlessly absorbing, to an extent entertaining, and still with a touch of the scholarly about it.
It is written and directed by Stephen Gaghan who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Traffic, so you should correctly presume a certain level of plot complexity and a myriad bunch of characters. The narrative, given its subject matter, is suitably fractured and complex, and is quite like researching something on Wikipedia. Read a main article, click through the link for terms you want more information on, come back and finish the main article etc.
Only, the audience doesn't have the freedom to click. The story isn't what you want more of, however. By the end of it you just wish there was more of the characters to go around.
The film is a triumph of storytelling in one way. It weaves a story that connects the US Government, China, Middle Eastern politics, CIA dealings, terrorism and nepotism together, and largely all of them to the one commodity that has sparked more wars in recent times than anything – oil.
Gaghan uses his camera well, and keeps his distance to make sure you never get too involved in one strand of the story to forget about the others. This is a gorgeously shot film, and showcases Robert Elswit's best work since Magnolia and Boogie Nights, and much in the same vein.
Gaghan has ensured that each fragmented story he creates to show us a whole, doesn't pull any punches. To this effect he has employed the best cast in business, and they have, in turn, molded themselves as perfect conduits for the stories.
George Clooney plays burnt-out CIA agent Bob Barnes, who is caught in the middle of a paradigm shift in the Middle Eastern politics, and his own colleagues setting him up to be the fall guy.
Matt Damon is an intelligent and ambitious energy analyst who meteorically rises to become an adviser for a progressive monarch, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), of a fictional country in the Middle East. The prince wants to create a country that is liberal, democratic, and ensures the well-being of his people, and reduces their economy's increased reliance on American money and political influences.
Meanwhile, a lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) investigating a merger of two American oil companies with interests in Nasir's country and Kazakhstan, finds a lot of underhanded dealings, and has to sacrifice a big fish in order to let the merger happen.
Back in the prince's country, two Pakistani boys who work at an oil refinery, find themselves getting respect and focus with a local radical teaching a radical and violent misinterpretation of the Koran.
As masterfully as Gaghan employs his techniques in screen-writing (the dialogs are crisp as a potato wafer), he does an even better job joining the stories together without much by way of segue between them. He is not interested in spoon-feeding the attention deficit members of audience – he creates a story that demands your attention and a narrative that holds it together.
So if you find the goings on the screen tough to follow, that is mostly because you need to pay more attention to the film. This is refreshing to see as more and more films are being MTV-ised and served in bite-sized chunks of easy-to-digest entertainment.
The stories have an almost personal level of emotional impact, and the overall plot is quite straightforward as a cause and effect study of the politics of oil. It's the structure of these plots that may seem jarring to begin with – but such a film can only be serviced in that structure.
The film that deftly shows the corridors of American power, boardrooms of multinational oil companies, boondocks of oil refineries, and inner sanctums of Middle Eastern monarchies in an overarching sweep to show the true picture. This is a movie that grabs you by the scruff and says, “This is what is happening.”
Syriana is filled with enough fact and touches of reality to make this world as real as yours. This is definitely not escapist cinema. It will not make you forget your worries and your world for 2 hours. Instead, it will demand your attention, and provide you with a picture that is plausible enough to disturb you. It helps that almost all the major characters are played by recognizable actors and people with tremendous screen presence, as it helps the structure in dividing itself.
Syriana is a fiercely focal film with a dense and layered approach to storytelling – the only kind that it can work within. It is not an especially hard film to keep track of. If anything, the characters jump out of the screen, largely due to the powerful dialogs, and the story is told through nuanced emotions.
Try and pay more attention to the movie, and it will reward you with a singular piece of important and relevant cinema. Keep an eye out for the rich detail and you will realize that this film is no small a triumph.
Although Syriana leaves you wishing it was a longer film, with a fully developed emotional closure with the characters, the time the characters spend on screen packs enough emotional wallop to sustain the brilliantly choreographed dance of energy that this one slowly becomes. The end moment is so powerful in its vivid imagery and elliptical message, that you will leave the cinema with more fodder for thought that any piece of cinema has business being.