Pseudo Arabia

Washington City Paper | December 9, 2005
The world is flat, claims one well-known advocate of American imperial power, and Syriana’s first transition seems to agree: An Islamic chant plays over the Warner Bros. emblem, only to switch to hiphop when the logo yields to an establishing shot of Tehran. The city, the world capital of MDMA, boasts a young man scoring an illicit commodity from a rumpled, bearded, Farsi-speaking American. The latter is no drug dealer, though. He’s CIA Agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney), peddling some sort of missile to somebody expected to advance American interests somewhere between the Mediterranean and the Caspian. Barnes walks away, a car explodes, and the action switches to Georgetown. This world is not flat, it turns out, but a tangle of competing interests that all run through the Middle East.

Or maybe it’s merely the movie that’s a tangle. Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who scripted Steven Soderbergh’s structurally kindred Traffic, the intriguing but finally unsatisfying Syriana is the latest product of the Clooney-Soderbergh salutary-cinema factory. Whereas the Clooney-directed Good Night, and Good Luck. was a period film that worked in miniature, the Clooney-produced Syriana is a contemporary global epic whose unified-oil-field theory encompasses CIA malfeasance, Islamic terrorism, Gulf State despotism, and the corporate-political influence market that another Clooney-Soderbergh project dubbed K Street.

Gaghan doesn’t seek to explain all this. The script, “suggested” by See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, a book by former Company man Robert Baer (whose name probably inspired Bob Barnes’), omits some basic points, including the meaning of the film’s title. (It’s a policy insider’s term for a revamped Middle East.) In a season whose upcoming Big Movies—Munich, Brokeback Mountain, and even King Kong—all push toward three hours, Gaghan has held his to two, reportedly at the cost of an entire subplot. But he may have clipped the wrong scenes: While leaving some of the central plot dangling, he retains a father–son motif that’s less than integral.

For two of the characters, at least, the generational link is crucial. Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig) is the prince of an unidentified country—let’s call it Pseudo Arabia—who must contend with his brother for the chance to succeed his father. And Geneva-based American energy-biz analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is offered a shot at advising Prince Nasir after a horrible incident: Woodman’s young son dies at the prince’s father’s estate in Spain. But Barnes’ strained relationship with his teenage son (Max Minghella, as miffed as in Bee Season) isn’t essential, and neither are the ones between impatient Pakistani petro-grunt Wasim (Mazhar Munir) and his complacent father, and Washington corporate lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) and his alcoholic pop. (The last seems to exist just so Gaghan can use shots of funky Shaw to contrast with the opulence of the oil-baron lifestyle.)

Prince Nasir is a reformer who accepts Woodman’s argument that Pseudo Arabia must build an economy that will outlast its petroleum reserves. Barnes is a principled troublemaker who doesn’t like being used to advance American corporate interests. All three are in the path of a Texas oil merger that involves two executives (Chris Cooper and Tim Blake Nelson) who preach the gospels according to Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand—not to mention Holiday and his law-firm bosses’ (Christopher Plummer and Nicky Henson) trying to determine just how many miscreants they must surrender to the Department of Justice before the deal will be approved. Meanwhile, the U.S. government encourages plans for a coup in Iran, the Chinese maneuver for control of Pseudo Arabia’s oil, and Wasim is drawn to an Islamic school, where he’s picked for a suicide mission. Oh, and Woodman’s wife (Amanda Peet) leaves Geneva, probably disgruntled at what a small part she has.

Syriana will surely be criticized for its politics, but its most hapless feature is its drama. Like Clooney, Gaghan is a graduate of the Soderbergh School of Directing, and his editing, framing, and camera movements constitute a polished demonstration of the contemporary crypto-documentary style. The characterization, however, is considerably less crisp: It’s impossible to tell whether Barnes’, Woodman’s, and Holiday’s mutability is a moral judgment or just directorial weakness. Most of the characters click into focus only to deliver a single speech—which tends to reduce the movie to a powerful trailer that tells us almost as much as the whole thing.

But then again, why watch the whole thing? For a film that purports to a radical critique of contemporary geopolitics, Syriana doesn’t provide any big surprises. It’s a firecracker that detonates years after most Americans have decided they can’t trust Arab princes, K Street lawyers, or Texas oil moguls.

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