By Joe Lozito
Writer Stephen Gaghan ("Traffic"
, "The Alamo") created the fictional script for "Syriana" based on the non-fiction book "See No Evil" by Robert Baer. The interesting thing about Mr. Gaghan's script, though, isn't that its labyrinthine plot of conspiring Emirs, lawyers and CIA agents plotting to control the world's oil supply is so unbelievable. The most troublesome part of "Syriana" is that the movie is, in fact, so easy to believe.
"Syriana" has one of those interweaving plots that Robert Altman does so effortlessly. But where Mr. Altman's films seem to drift with ease from one subplot to another, "Syriana" is so ridiculously complex that the audience, at first straining to keep track of the characters and settings, eventually must give in and let the film run its course.
It's a shame because "Syriana" has a lot to say, and Mr. Gaghan has obviously done his homework. The film ostensibly revolves around an impending merger between two of the world's largest oil companies and the men assigned to investigate it and/or ensure that it takes place. To go into any more detail would be futile since "Syriana" not only invites but requires additional viewings to keep it all straight.
The huge ensemble cast is uniformly terrific. In particular Jeffrey Wright, always a strong presence, does some of his best work here as a lawyer slowly realizing the futility of his assignment. George Clooney, proudly over-weight and ruffled as a seen-it-all CIA operative, makes good use of his gift for understatement. Alexander Siddig, famously of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" does some heretofore unseen solid work as the man who would be Emir. Matt Damon and Amanda Peet as a husband and wife caught up in the dollars and senselessness of it all add some much-needed humanity to the film, which runs the risk of becoming a series of preachy board meetings. And, of course, Christopher Plummer is perfectly commanding as the head of Mr. Wright's law firm.
Mr. Gaghan steps behind the camera as the film's director and he has obviously learned some tricks from "Traffic"
director Steven Soderbergh. The film's settings, particularly in Lebanon and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, have the requisite feeling of immediacy. And the film's blistering pace makes its two-plus hour running time fly by.
The film never reaches the dizzying gamesmanship of Mr. Altman's films or the movie "Crash"
, however. Unlike those films, "Syriana", like "Traffic"
, contains many subplots which serve one master story, rather than multiple subplots around the same theme. Therefore, though the film does eventually pay off, it doesn't tie together in one of those beautiful the-whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts moments. There's a great monologue by a character named Danny Dalton (a pitch-perfect Tim Blake Nelson) about corruption which should have been the defining moment of everything in the film but instead just becomes another in a series of good moments which loosely hang together. It's a testament to Mr. Gaghan's script that - even without thoroughly understanding the film - you're able to get the gist of it.