How did our oil get under their sand? That mordant joke, which circulated when Bush was preparing to invade the hornets' nest called Iraq, should be the tagline for Syriana. The 126-minute movie, now playing in Vermont, is a sort of dramatized diagram that shows how energy companies conspire with the American government to control the world's dwindling petroleum supplies. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan researched the script by traveling around the globe with Robert Baer, a former CIA agent whose actual covert experiences inspired this work of fiction.
Reality is no doubt far worse than the thoroughly chilling details on screen, however. The maddeningly complex film suggests that the proverbial "politics of oil" now shapes all human destiny. Its title refers to a nonexistent place conjured by conservative think tanks planning to reshape the Middle East. Oh, well. As long as I can count on regular unleaded for my Toyota Corolla.
Sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, George Clooney plays Bob Barnes, a seasoned agency operative based on Baer. The character has been working in the region long enough to speak fluent Arabic and Farsi. He's also got a bit of blood on his hands.
Just as Barnes is car-bombing two militants during an undercover sting in Tehran, a high-tech missile disappears. But his bosses back at Langley don't want to hear about the missing weapon of mass destruction. They're more concerned with trying to undermine a progressive prince, Nasir (Alexander Siddig), who's vowing to limit U.S. influence and stop oppressing women in an unspecified emirate that sounds suspiciously like Saudi Arabia.
"Suddenly, I'm a godless communist," Nasir says at one point, summing up his vilification by right-wingers in Washington, D.C.
He gives China the natural-gas drilling rights that were previously held by Connex Oil, a Houston corporation run by the slimy Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper). To keep the profits flowing, Pope is determined to merge with a smaller Texas company that has just signed an exploration deal with Kazakhstan. But the Justice Department wants to scrutinize the impending alliance of these two Lone Star State businesses.
Enter Jeffrey Wright as Bennett Holiday, an attorney for a prestigious law firm helping Connex navigate the shoals of public oversight. The sinister senior partner (Christopher Plummer) has many friends in high places.
In Switzerland, Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an ambitious energy analyst with a lovely wife (Amanda Peet) and two sons. As the result of a personal tragedy, he becomes an advisor to Nasir -- who needs all the advice he can get. His scheming younger brother is chosen to succeed their ailing father, the emir. This means the country will remain under America's thumb, and the ladies shouldn't throw away their head-to-toe shrouds just yet.
William Hurt has a cameo as a Deep Throat type who warns Barnes to "clear it with Hezbollah" before embarking on another assignment: to trail Nasir in Beirut. One of the film's few laughs comes when the Yank -- trying to seem less like a walking target -- claims to be Canadian. He discovers at his own peril that Lebanon is still a hotbed of jihad.
Meanwhile, the ripple effect is profound: After the loss of drilling rights in the Persian Gulf, Connex lays off dozens of oil rig employees, including a Pakistani migrant worker (Mashard Munir) who loves Spider-Man and soccer. Unable to find another job, he winds up in a madrassa, a radical Islamic school where he learns to despise modernity.
All this exposition is really only the prelude to a tangled tale of calculation, manipulation, betrayal and murder. In other words, just another day in the quest for oil billions. Michael Douglas' memorable Wall Street pronouncement that "greed is good" pales in comparison with the heartfelt tribute to corruption expressed in Syriana by Tim Blake Nelson, portraying a politician.
In addition to the twisty screenplay, Robert Elswit's cinematography, Tim Squyres' editing and Alexandre Desplat's score all contribute to the gnawing tension. Gaghan, who also wrote Traffic, never preaches. Nonetheless, he creates a sense of dread about what any individual can possibly do to outwit omniscient forces. There's even a fleeting TV image of John D. Rockefeller, a subtle history lesson for people who have forgotten this country's fossil-fuel legacy.
Such pessimism is unusual in a mainstream Hollywood movie. It's also rare to have so little heroism in a big-budget picture with an ensemble cast of immensely talented performers. Redemption is elusive. Everyone's complicit. Fill 'er up.