As a six-year-old American boy tussles poolside with an Arab child, the American boy's mother remarks, "Let him work it out on his own. It's important for his autonomy." It's a fleeting but telling moment in Syriana, Stephen Gaghan's unsettling montage of American-Middle Eastern entanglements. Gaghan won the Oscar for his adapted screenplay for Traffic, and he takes a similar tack here, weaving together multiple storylines about intelligence gathering, terrorism, and the international oil business.
Gaghan's cerebral thriller—suggested by former CIA field officer Robert Baer's book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism—is a teeming ant farm of characters and plot, provoking interest and introspection. At what cost comes our daily reliance on oil? Baer surrogate Robert Barnes (George Clooney), a loyal CIA servant, gets hung out to dry when he stumbles on a secret mission. An American energy-biz analyst (Matt Damon) and an Arabian prince (Alexander Siddig) attracted to his ruthless business sense become unlikely bedfellows, while two American oil outfits race toward a high-stakes merger (Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, and Christopher Plummer play the business-interest players).
Syriana is inordinately ambitious. For being smart and provocative, Syriana will strike some as overly wonkish, but that's its appeal—Gaghan refuses to hype the inherent drama to Oscar-showy proportions. Instead, Gaghan focuses on scoring points about the unabated rise of big business (John D. Rockefeller has a cameo), the intersection of military and corporate intelligence ("Easy on the memos," cautions one government wag), and the loss of idealism in the fog of war.
Syriana may not gel on a first pass—its complicated form becomes more rewarding on repeated viewings. Yes, Gaghan thoroughly fictionalizes his well-researched facts, but in doing so, he crafts a potent legend of modern international relations. Taken alongside Good Night, and Good Luck., Syriana suggests that George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh's production company may single-handedly revive the gritty, politically tinged dramas and thrillers of the 1970s.