Syriana (15)

How the Middle East was won
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Syriana, explains the press kit, is "a term used by Washington think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East". Tantalisingly, and admirably, the term is neither defined nor even used in Stephen Gaghan's film. Gaghan could never be accused of spoonfeeding us. In fact, I had to see Syriana twice - no hardship, since it's extremely watchable - to get to grips with its sprawling, many-stranded plot, but the opacity is very much to the point: Gaghan's analysis of geopolitical power-gaming in the international oil business emphasises that there are no simple answers in this game, no transparent maps of the playing field. And this is a big-budget Hollywood film we're talking about, so respect is due.

If there is a centre, or starting point, to Syriana's maze, it's the imminent change of power in an oil-producing Gulf state, where the reigning Emir looks like being succeeded by his son Nasir (Alexander Siddig), a man with visions of progressive reform, and the character who comes across as the sanest, straightest player on the board. Nasir has struck a deal with China, causing concern at two American oil companies, whose merger is under scrutiny by the US Justice Department. A Washington law firm headed by Christopher Plummer's lizard-like grandee brings in an earnestly ambitious company man, Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), to exercise "due diligence" and investigate any shady dealing behind the merger.

Meanwhile in Tehran, CIA veteran Bob Barnes (George Clooney) loses track of a Stinger missile. Back in Washington, he files a concerned memo - very bad form, apparently - and, for his pains, is sent on a mission that goes wrong, leaving him with serious doubts, an official blacklisting and a fingernail or two short. Also involved is Matt Damon as an energy analyst and family man who, as the direct result of a personal tragedy, gets Prince Nasir's ear. And, far from the boardroom machinations, young Pakistani worker Wasim (Mazhar Munir) is laid off at the oil fields; increasingly disillusioned, he finds himself drawn to Islamic radicalism...

You can see where all this is going, can't you? Well, good luck if you can - I don't think I've jotted down plot points so assiduously. But that's one of Syriana's virtues - it means to keep you awake and thinking. There's an extraordinary image of Holiday ploughing doggedly through a warehouse-load of official paperwork, and I couldn't help imagining Syriana's script editors in a similar position. Writer-director Gaghan wrote Steven Soderbergh's byzantine drugs-trade drama Traffic, and he uses a similar structure here, tracing the multiple interconnections of actions motivated by personal, corporate and national greed, and showing how they affect individuals on different levels of society.

Unlike Traffic, however, Syriana features few ordinary people: most of its characters are corporate beings with differing degrees of power, and representative of different factions: that's why the ending, which cursorily grants personal redemptions to two characters, feels like lip service to human interest. The only ground-level working stiffs involved are the mistreated oilfield workers, but much as the film tries to make Wasim a fully-shaded character, it fails: he remains an illustrative case of how world events affect people on a local level.

But then, just about everyone here is an illustrative case. Damon's character is the eager, intelligent young suit whose moral compass is confused by opportunity and the whiff of a big global vision. And Holiday represents the bureaucrat so entangled in duplicity that his fate is not merely a question of corruptibility, it's also one of staying sane in the face of impossible complexity.

The most plausibly lifelike character, strangely, is Clooney's field operative, who coolly walks away from explosions and grimly faces torture. Yet he somehow figures as engagingly mundane. That's partly because he's shown as an ordinary, unimaginative man in an incongruously dramatic job, and partly because Clooney - his salt-and-pepper beard and flabby gut making this, in Hollywood parlance, a "brave" performance - carries off the regular-Joe battle-weariness so earthily.

Towards the end, we get a sparing précis of Syriana's thesis from a slippery oilman (Tim Blake Nelson) who declares, invoking Milton Friedman, "Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption... is why we win" (Gaghan minimises his quotable passages). We also get a bracing action-and-surveillance climax, which makes you realise how much Syriana owes to the plotline-juggling legerdemain of TV's 24. Gaghan directs with to-the-point crispness, and a steely vigour that has more than a glimmer of Michael Mann.

Syriana impresses as an all-round entertainment and thought-provoker, as a film designed to be discussed in arts supplements and on political pages alike. But does it actually work as a didactic consciousness-raiser? It's clearly intended to. One of the production companies, along with Clooney's and Soderbergh's Section Eight, is Participant Productions, which also made Good Night, and Good Luck, and which has as its stated mission to make films "that will inspire audiences to get involved in the issues that affect us all".

But Syriana is flawed in this respect; I think it's possible to come away from the film feeling unimplicated, feeling that everything we've seen is the fault of corrupt individuals in boardrooms and behind surveillance consoles: bad men did these things. And, while Syriana might get multiplex audiences thinking about the oil industry, it doesn't extend its critique to all of us who drive to the multiplex in gas-guzzling cars. Syriana, therefore, shouldn't be overrated as a political gesture; but as a sleek, intelligent, well-informed entertainment, it shouldn't be underrated.