If there’s one good thing that came out of George W. Bush’s presidency it was a wealth of politically and socially-minded art in response to his unpopular regime. Leading the charge, in Hollywood at least, was George Clooney who positioned himself as a vocal liberal celebrity with two high profile movies in 2005: Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana. The latter film was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), and was loosely based on See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, Robert Baer’s memoir of his days as a CIA operative in the Middle East.
Structurally, Syriana follows the same template as Traffic with four distinctive yet also interlocking storylines presented in a non-linear fashion but containing all kinds of layers and complexities. The first one focuses on Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), an attorney working for a Washington, D.C. law firm whose job it is to make sure that the United States government approves a merger between two large oil companies, Connex and Killen, both of whom have lucrative oil drilling refineries in the Middle East. Connex is losing control of crucial oil fields in a kingdom ruled by the al-Subaai family. The emirate’s foreign minister, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) has granted drilling rights to a Chinese company, which has pissed off the American oil industry and the energy interests of the U.S. government. In retaliation, Connex starts a not-entirely legal merger with Killen, an oil company that has recently won the drilling rights to key oil fields in Kazakhstan.
Robert Barnes (Clooney) is a veteran CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer who works in the Middle East collecting information on and preventing the trafficking of weapons by arms dealers. After one particular job in Tehran to assassinate two Iranian arms dealers, he suspects something is wrong after an anti-tank missile that was intended to take out his targets was diverted to an Arab. After writing a memo to his superiors that upsets them, he is given a desk job. He gets increasingly frustrated with his superiors because they have no idea what is really going on in the Middle East. So, they send him back into the field to kill Prince Nasir.
Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an idealistic energy analyst based in Geneva, Switzerland. His superiors assign him to work as an economic advisor to Prince Nasir in the Persian Gulf out of sympathy for a tragedy in his personal life that was indirectly the fault of Nasir. Woodman soon finds himself caught up in a power struggle between Nasir and his brother for control of their ailing father’s vast empire. His younger brother is chosen as the King’s successor instead of Nasir who plans a military coup so that he can introduce democratic reforms to counter his father’s conservative government.
The last storyline shows how terrorists are cultivated. Saleem Ahmed Khan (Shahid Ahmed) and his son Wasim (Mazhar Munir) are fired from their jobs at Connex oil refinery in the Middle East because of a Chinese company outbidding Connex. This fosters a deep resentment towards these wealthy companies. It also makes Wasim and his friend easy recruits for a terrorist organization that appeals to their religious beliefs and provides them a structure and a purpose to their lives.
Since 9/11, the typical Tom Clancy spy movie blockbuster that was popular in the 1990s has been replaced with a more realistic and more immediately relevant type of film. With Syriana, Gaghan was interested in portraying “the world right now.” The inspiration for the film came from 9/11 and his lack of knowledge on the Middle East. “When 9/11 happened, it suddenly was a war on terror, which I think of as a war on emotions. It all started to click for me,” the screenwriter remembers. While working on Traffic, he began to see the parallels between drug addiction and America’s dependency on foreign oil. A few weeks after 9/11, Steven Soderbergh sent Gaghan a copy of Baer’s See No Evil. Soderbergh had bought the rights to the book and negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. Gaghan read the book and wanted to turn it into a film. It added yet another layer to the story he wanted to tell. He managed to convince the studio to give him an unlimited research budget and no deadline.
Gaghan met with Baer for lunch and they talked about turning the book into a film. The summer was ending and Baer was taking his daughter back to boarding school in Europe. According to him, “all the players in the Gulf spend August in the south of France,” and he invited Gaghan along to meet with some of these people. For six weeks in 2002, the two men traveled from Washington to Geneva to the French Rivera to Lebanon, Syria and Dubai, meeting with lobbyists, arms dealers, oil traders, Arab officials, and the spiritual leader of the Hezbollah. Gaghan did his own legwork, meeting with oil traders in London, England and lawyers in Washington, D.C.
Gaghan got an indication of the kinds of people he was meeting when in moments after arriving in Beirut in 2002; he was taken from the airport in a blindfold and hood and taken to visit Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah. Fadlallah was interested in films and decided to grant Gaghan an audience even though the screenwriter had not requested one. From there, Gaghan dined with men suspected of killing former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and met with Former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle.
Meeting Baer, Gaghan realized that the man had “gone out there and done and seen things that he was not allowed to talk about, and wouldn’t, but he was angry about and also trying to make amends for.” With Syriana, it was important for audiences to understand how a soldier looks at things and how someone at the top, close to presidents, also looks at things. While writing the screenplay, Gaghan claimed to be influenced by European films like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), Costa-Gavra’s Z (1969) and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966).
Gaghan and his crew shot in over 200 locations on four continents with 100 speaking parts. At one point, Syriana became so complicated in terms of structure and content that Gaghan eliminated one complete storyline in post-production. The fifth storyline involved Michelle Monaghan playing Miss USA who becomes involved with a rich Arabic oilman. He found that he could not balance more than four stories.
In the little screen time he has early on, George Clooney does an excellent job showing the rusty compass that his character lives his life by. The actor has improved and refined himself with every subsequent role he has done and relies more and more on what is going on behind his eyes than falling back on his good looks. His performance in Syriana goes beyond the obvious Method trappings – the weight gain and growing the thick beard – to his expressive eyes and how he uses them to convey Barnes’ world-weariness. This role is one of his strongest and his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor was well-deserved. However, Clooney took one for the team in the worst way. During the harrowing scene where his character was tortured, Clooney was hurled to the floor more than 20 times. During one take, he hit his head and began experiencing severe back and head pain. Doctors later discovered that the actor had ruptured his spinal fluid sac and needed multiple surgeries.
Woodman’s first scene with his family is brief but effectively sets up the close bond he has wife his wife (Amanda Peet) and his two sons. One boy is not keen the pseudo-bacon he’s told to eat and so Woodman tries a piece to show that it’s good and fails miserably. Matt Damon does a good job of selling his priceless reaction shot and offering a light moment that immediately makes us empathize and like his character and his family. Jeffrey Wright delivers an understated, minimalist performance. When Holiday meets with the superiors in his firm, he appears nervous – he’s in the big leagues, swimming with the sharks – rich, powerful men as embodied by Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) and malevolent good ol’ boys politicians (played with scary conviction by Tim Blake Nelson and Chris Cooper).
One of the film’s central themes is the strained relationships between fathers and their sons. Barnes’ son resents all the moving around that they do as a result of his old man’s job and this robs him of a normal life. Woodman must cope with the tragic death of his little boy. Holiday copes with his alcoholic father who disapproves of his son’s work and the effect it has on his well-being.
Gaghan’s direction reflects the stories in the film. Everything isn’t spelled out. There are a lot of gray areas with morally and ethically ambiguous characters whose motivations aren’t entirely clear. If, at times, it is hard to follow all of the characters in this film this is done on purpose in order to illustrate just how hard it is to keep track of all the players in the Middle East oil trade and their numerous alliances, both obvious and secretive, with corporations and governments. Trying to make sense of it all can be a confusing and frustrating experience.
The timing of Syriana couldn’t have been more relevant as it exposed the dirty dealings between the U.S. government, American corporations and various oil-rich families in the Middle East. Reading between the lines, it also sheds light on the real reason why the U.S. is in Iraq. It isn’t to democratize its people, as the White House party line would have us all believe, but because of their abundant oil resources and the money Bush and his cronies made from it. While this is nothing new to anyone who is well-informed, this film does act as a decent primer to the uninitiated.