In the corporate world of oil and politics, the real power lies behind and beneath the government. In the impoverished Middle East, where young men and women are lured from their seemingly inescapable circumstances into a fundamentalist way of thinking, the importance of political affairs, ethics and trust is irrefutable. Much of “Syriana,” directed by Stephen Gaghan, is torn and compiled from today’s headlines, constructing a loose, quasi-documentary style story laced with liberal cynicism and wit. The film is made up of four overlapping subplots with further divisions within them that follow different strings of events from numerous points of view.
The oil moguls – made up of a chilling collection of performances by Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Robert Foxworth and Nicky Henson – are involved in a merger that has all the makings of a mighty lucrative investment for the United States and a very delicate endeavor with increasingly high stakes for both sides. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a lawyer from one of the oil companies, is charged with the task of fine-tuning the merger by weeding out as many unethical qualities – and people – as he can. While searching, Holiday stumbles upon so many convolutions that he has trouble discerning the unethical from the ethical.
Meanwhile, Bob Barnes (played in understated glory by George Clooney), a CIA operative with notable successes to his name, has become somewhat of a liability without realizing it. As Barnes looks for answers, he steadily realizes the depth of government corruption and mercilessness when it comes to protecting its best interests as his past allies betray him and his reputation slowly decays. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an oil broker, his wife (a convincingly honest Amanda Peet) and children encounter a devastating tragedy that leads Woodman, through the niceties of the government, to ally himself with Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig). Nasir, the elder Prince of Syriana, whose idealistic qualities are questioned throughout the film, turns out to be a hindrance to the merging companies’ hold on the oil-rich country. Conflict arises between Prince Nasir and his younger brother, Prince Meshal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha) when their father, Emir Hamed Al-Subaai (Nadim Sawalha), makes his decisions regarding the political future of their country.
At the bottom of the social food chain, a Pakistani teenager, Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir), his father and his friends are all fired from their already low-paying jobs as a result of oil monopolization and corporate capitalization. After countless disappointments, the disillusioned Wasim and his friends become dangerously receptive to the evangelizing of a zealous fundamentalist who offers them an alternative to the miserable lives they all lead. As a politically specific movie, it assumes that the viewer is relatively knowledgeable – the film’s fast pace provides no time for in-depth explanations or back story. Even those with a relatively solid grounding in current affairs can find themselves a bit baffled at parts. I would argue that many would even benefit from seeing it a second or third time. Nevertheless, “Syriana” does not exist to sell itself, but to convey ideas and warnings of the realities that we, as a country and as a planet, are facing. What translates easily is the single, unifying theme that each person, regardless of status or allegiance, is faced with an intense moral dilemma and is forced to deal with it in whatever capacities they possess. The results of their trials will determine their true character, because, in the end, judgment is ambiguous and rarely fair, regardless of the individual’s personal character.