“Syriana”

A beefy George Clooney is marvelous as a CIA agent caught up in a Middle Eastern oil intrigue, but this political thriller is too complicated for its own good.

Topics: George Clooney, Movies,

"Syriana"

If you’ve seen the trailer for “Syriana” — and have even half a memory of the way one character declares, “Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why we win” — then you already know pretty much everything about the movie’s intentions and its ultimate message. This is a political thriller with a laundry list of viable points to hit: The United States will stop at nothing to protect its oil interests; the CIA is willing and able to carry out vile deeds, sometimes by taking advantage of the loyalty and dedication of its employees; and there are infinite ways for big corporations to manipulate the Justice Department so they can do whatever they please and still appear to be operating within the letter of the law.

The seriousness of “Syriana” is its chief selling point; it’s a solemn, ruminative piece of work whose entertainment value — if that’s what you’re looking for — rests solely in the way its writer and director, Stephen Gaghan, keeps its multiple story lines clicking forward at once, sometimes swerving into one another, sometimes just chugging along on parallel tracks. This is a movie made for grown-ups. It doesn’t waste time or insult our intelligence with needless explication; it drops its crumbs of information scene by scene, always staying two or three steps ahead of us.

But Gaghan’s faith in our ability to read this trail of crumbs accurately is a mixed blessing. “Syriana” often feels more complicated than it needs to be, and there are too many places where its willful complexity undercuts what the actors are doing. There’s something a little showy about the way Gaghan — who wrote the script of Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” a similarly complicated picture but a far more immediate one — presents us with so many somber winks and feints as we try to process the motives and machinations of the movie’s numerous key characters. It’s as if Gaghan knows we’re up to the challenge he’s handing us and yet secretly hopes we’re not — maybe because the more confused we get, the smarter he looks.



The geographical nexus of “Syriana” is a fictional oil-rich Gulf country, whose aged emir is preparing to step down. The eldest of his two sons, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig, who, in neat shorthand strokes, deftly defines a character who’s both glamorous and principled), is next in line for the throne; he’s more interested in social and economic reform for his country than in catering to U.S. business interests, which is why he grants natural-gas drilling rights to a Chinese company instead of renewing the country’s long-held contract with Connex, a huge Texas energy conglomerate.

Anxious to maintain its foothold in the Middle East, Connex instigates a merger with a smaller Texas oil company, Killen (its owner is played by Chris Cooper), which has drilling rights in Kazakhstan. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a young lawyer with a prestigious Washington law firm, has been assigned to perform due diligence on the companies, learning the wormy nooks and crannies of their international business dealings. Meanwhile, a young energy analyst (Matt Damon) with a small Swiss trading company, approaches the emir on behalf of his firm, hoping to land a consulting contract. When one of Damon’s young sons dies in an accident at a party thrown by the emir, Prince Nasir awards him the consulting gig as a way of making amends. The last but possibly most crucial character in this plot, which unfolds like an endless set of nesting dolls, is longtime CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a dutiful government foot soldier who’s been working for years in the Middle East.

For the most part, it’s remarkable that Gaghan sustains the logic of these numerous plot threads as well as he does. (Yet another subplot involves a young Pakistani man, Mazhar Munir, who loses his job in the oil-drilling fields and, bitter and frustrated at his inability to make a living, comes under the sway of an Islamic fundamentalist.) This is a picture with strong political convictions, and Gaghan’s dedication to those convictions generates its own persistent whine of electricity. But Gaghan is more interested in building a teetering pile of ideas than a compelling drama. There’s so much going on in “Syriana” that the performers often get lost in all the criss-crossing traffic. And, much as “Syriana” pretends not to have black-and-white heroes and villains, it’s obvious who the bad guys are: When Chris Cooper, at a meeting of bigwig executives, asks, “What is an emir, anyway?” he pronounces the word, in a slithery Texas drawl, “E-murr,” as if he thinks it’s some sort of exotic animal. Cooper is a wonderful actor, capable of far more subtlety than that. But he seems to be doing exactly what the movie asks of him, which isn’t much.

It’s entirely possible that Gaghan just isn’t an actor’s director. He’s certainly more interested in structure than in storytelling, which may serve him well enough for a movie or two, although the novelty may wear thin after that. But if nothing else, “Syriana” gives us a hint of what Clooney has to offer us as he enters that territory so treacherous for actors, middle age. The politics of “Syriana” are clearly pretty much in line with Clooney’s. (He’s also, along with Soderbergh and several others, one of the movie’s executive producers.) But more than anything else in “Syriana,” his performance gives us a sense of what those politics mean emotionally: It gives us a concrete sense of how convictions can shape our lives, or possibly even destroy them. Clooney gained weight for the role, the sort of stunt that usually draws praise by itself, at least as proof of an actor’s dedication.

Clooney probably could have played this role just as well without the weight gain, but the extra padding does make him more convincing as a character who’s nearing retirement age. Clooney has always been a marvelous romantic lead, and a great charmer in pictures like Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven.” But with “Syriana” — as well as with his small, sly role in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which he also directed — Clooney gives us a glimpse of what we’re in for as he stretches the boundaries of his potential. In “Syriana,” Clooney carries even more weight in his eyes than he does in his body: We see the way both duty and doubt weigh on him; he tells us a story that stretches far beyond the scope of Gaghan’s overextended cleverness. With that extra padding, and with his grayed, grizzled beard, Clooney carries himself like a depressed circus bear. With just the barest wrinkling of his brow, he shows us how being too good at the job he does can be a man’s ultimate punishment. Clooney is the soul of “Syriana,” and his face is what you’re left with long after the movie’s obsessive plot details have sifted away.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>