Coherence is so overrated.
When so many Hollywood products green screen their way into theaters with more attention to how many focus groups they can please — and therefore how many bucks they can rake in on the first weekend — rather than little things like storytelling, acting, plot, or direction, it's no surprise that cohesion gets lost. After all, why weave together a sturdy narrative when a threadbare one will do just fine.
Eventually, this lack of focus was bound to work its way into more prestigious pictures. But when it did, it surprisingly ended up not being a detriment.
“Syriana,” the latest entry in what could be calledAmerica’s Activist Wave, is one of those films that works greater than its parts. In this case, there are four seemingly divergent subplots, all twirled around the larger scope of Middle Eastern oil.
In one, a CIA operative, known only as Bob (George Clooney), treks around the world in attempt to cleanse it of the Earth’s worst terrorists. When we first meet Bob, he handedly takes care of a couple Iranian arms dealers. So what if he lost an expensive and dangerous American weapon in the process? He then goes toBeiruton a clandestine operation to take care of Prince Nasir al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), but ends up falling into the clutches of a nefarious former associate-slash-soldier of fortune. This leads Bob to be all but shut out of the CIA, and, as any good moviegoer knows, shutting out a badass secret agent only leads to trouble. And Bob delivers it in spades.
Another subplot follows oil market analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) as he goes from office jockey in Geneva to grieving parent to economic advisor to Prince Nasir as Nasir tries to ascend the throne held by his father and bring his country out of the dark ages—and take it away from the influence of American interests, especially the oil companies mining his nation for all the black gold it can.
The third thread of the film, and possibly the most convoluted, centers on Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) as he investigates, at the behest of his boss, Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), why one oil company lost a bid to the Chinese to mine the oil reserves in some Middle Eastern nation. This leadsHolidayto discover some unsavory truths about the US Department of Justice, the merger of two oil conglomerates, and just how cheap a commodity loyalty is when oil is at stake.
The final section of “Syriana” focuses on two Muslim boys as they are facing expulsion from oneMideastcountry thanks to the oil company merger and how this change leads them to find solace in the form of a Muslim school. Of course, the school turns out to be one of those elusive “terrorist training grounds” mentioned so often in the news. In the school, the learn how awful Western culture is, especially when it comes from America, and they fall in with a guy—the same guy, it turns out, who stole that weapon in the Bob storyline—who runs a special sect of the school. This, in fact, is where the boys end up training to become suicide bombers.
With some deft storytelling and maneuvering, Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer of “Traffic,” another murky mess, weaves all these storylines into one singular entity, cloudy and difficult as it might be.
As the film winds from subplot A to C to B to A to D to B to C and so on, you can’t help but feel a bit punch-drunk. But such is the plight of anyone attempting to follow in any great detail how world events connect to another. In this way, Gaghan’s film is a masterpiece of realism. By the time the film ends, we’re not really sure who exactly everyone is, who they’re working for, and to what ends they’re working. For some people, like the obelisks that are the oil conglomerates,Mideastroyalty, and the American government, the intentions and motivations are all too clear. And none of them came away unscathed; “Syriana” is fair in that respect. It’s the individuals, though, that pose the problem. What is Bennett Holiday’s motivation? Who exactly is Dean Whiting? Why does Bob embark on the trek he does at the end of the film? None of these questions are answered, but I suspect they’re not supposed to be.
Like the overarching representation of world events itself presented so accurately in the film, the people populating that stage are just as complex. Even if you have a character figured out, be it Bob or Prince Nasir or the Justice Department investigator looking into the oil merger, the chances are great that their motivations will change by the next scene.
But this isn’t really a bad thing. Instead, it forces us to keep an eye on the bigger picture. “Syriana” isn’t a character piece. Rather, we’re meant to see how repugnant every facet of the oil industry is, from the government supporting it to the royals supplying it. Like how “The Insider” tackled the tobacco industry, so too does “Syriana” skewer oil.
That said, though, go to “Syriana” for the uncompromising view but stay for the acting. There isn’t one bad performance to be found. Clooney is once again brilliant, walking the fine line of nerves-of-steel secret agent to hot-blooded self-preservationist with ease, all while showing the emotional and physical toll it takes on Bob, in his face, voice, gait, and appearance. Plummer, too, is excellent, even if he’s in a somewhat limited role. No one has shown to play the foul-mouthed codger the way Plummer has in this film and “The Insider,” and if there’s one complaint to be found in the acting it’s that he’s not in the film nearly enough. And Damon again continues to outshine Ben Affleck as one of the most talented actors of his generation. He brings a gravity to his role that might have been lost if someone else attempted to take on his role.
The real treat, though, is the secondary players, Siddig and Tim Blake Nelson, in a small role, especially. Most astute viewers will remember Siddig as Dr. Julian Bashir on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” I confess to not having seen him in anything else before or since, but his performance in “Syriana” is one of the best supporting performances this year. He sways back and forth between creepy Middle Eastern royal and sympathetic martyr with ease. More than any other character in the film, we care about his Prince Nasir and what happens to him thanks to Siddig’s fine portrayal.
He could have been upstaged, though, by Nelson, playing a slimy oil lobbyist, had Nelson not been in the film for only two minutes. But, oh, what a glorious two minutes they are. In the limited time Nelson has, he just about steals the film away with a snarky speech about corruption that, while, like the film, rambling and a bit coherent, sounds like some nefarious proclamation thanks to his Southern drawl, small stature in comparison with his co-stars, and absolute disregard for anything or anyone that stands in his way. If there were an award for Best Two Minutes on Screen (wait, isn’t that the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars?), Nelson would win it, hands down.
Ultimately, what “Syriana” boils down to is a film strikingly relevant, which may turn many people off. In these troubled times, audiences seem to prefer mindless, mind-numbing pap that passes for entertainment. But to disregard “Syriana” outright because it may be too heady is a big mistake. Not only does it manage to dangle off the precipice of incoherent indulgence with trapeze grace, it’s also one of the most substantive films of the year. And in an era where substance at the multiplex is about as common as a substitute for fossil fuels, a film like “Syriana” needs to be embraced and supported like the rare gem it is.