In the labyrinthine Syriana, Stephen Gaghan attempts to investigate the oil industry in the same way he did the drugs trade in Traffic, fashioning a mosaic of corruption from a handful of narratives that at first look quite disparate but are gradually shown to be connected. Gaghan only scripted Traffic; here he writes and directs, and his multi-story structure feels more complicated, and its characters more ambiguous. If all the world's a stage, then this film is a grim and often very tense analysis of what's going on in the wings. In its continual shuffle of geopolitical perspectives - it switches location half-a-dozen times in the first 20 minutes - we are hard-pushed to determine what's going on, and why we should care. There's no telling the good guys from the bad.
To be thrown into the middle of a story without any kind of moral compass is unusual in an American movie, and oddly refreshing. It means that judgments become provisional until we can get a proper handle on what's being presented to us. The early appearance of George Clooney, as the veteran CIA operative Bob Barnes, suggests that he must be the film's hero, even though he's uncharacteristically heavy-set and bearded; then he murders two arms-dealers in Tehran, so it's goodnight and good luck to that theory. It's not just that he's an assassin, either; Clooney drops out of the story for long stretches while Gaghan shifts the focus.
From Tehran, Syriana fans out to inspect various players in the oil business. In Washington an ambitious lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) is supervising a merger between two Texan oil companies, while his boss (Christopher Plummer) is engaged in a dodgy kingmaking deal with an Arab potentate's younger son. The older son, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), is a reformer whose vision has brought him into league with a Geneva-based energy analyst (Matt Damon), a family man still reeling from a tragic loss. Nasir's plans to exclude American petroleum interests from his country make him pretty unpopular in Texas, and prompt the CIA to implement traditional means in unblocking the road to profit. Right at the bottom of the food chain in Nasir's country is a young Pakistani oil worker (Mazhar Munir) who has been laid off with hundreds of others, and who now pursues a desperate search for work before his visa expires. The only refuge he finds is with an Egyptian cleric who is militarising young Muslims.
Gaghan never allows his convoluted story to slacken and, even when we can't precisely follow what's happening (ie most of the time), there is a grave momentum carrying us through. Violence is infrequent but when it comes it's shocking; Barnes, kidnapped in Beirut, is then tortured horrifically by a man he believed to be a contact (Mark Strong, in a demonic cameo).
Its terminus, however, is almost purely pessimistic, offering not even the partial redemption that Traffic dared to entertain. The CIA and the oil barons are seen to be in cahoots, those with the potential to be heroes are thwarted, and the law becomes an adjunct of big business. "In this town you're innocent until you're investigated," somebody says of Washington, encapsulating the cynical mood.
Wright's pragmatic lawyer reaches out to his estranged father, who has been crouching on his front porch, but the air of rapprochement is uncertain: you suspect that he might turf him out again first thing next morning. It is hard to love a film of such overmastering bleakness, and just as hard to deny it a certain cussed integrity.
The last time a weatherman's life-crisis dominated a movie was Bill Murray's nightmare of repetition in Groundhog Day. The Weather Man isn't a patch on that, but it does carry an existential chill in its comic bones. It's set in Chicago, where they have all the chill they can handle - ice on the lake, freezing rain, and winds that blow you every which way. The television weatherman Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage) is buffeted by other things too, including an estranged wife (Hope Davis), a formidable father (Michael Caine) he has never managed to impress, and a couple of kids he can't seem to protect. He's basically a decent guy, yet, despite being courted for a top job in New York, he can't shake off the suspicion that he's a failure, and out on the street perfect strangers throw stuff at him - pies, tacos, soft drinks - just because they recognise his face from the box.
This isn't the movie one expects from Gore Verbinski (The Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean), but it's no less welcome for that. The scriptwriter Steve Conrad has the jaundiced double-vision of a Todd Solondz or a Terry Zwigoff, regarding comedy and tragedy as barely distinguishable and is alert to the nuances of social humiliation.
He is particularly acute on Spritz's flailing efforts to bond with his sullen, overweight daughter (Gemmenne de la Pena) and to reconcile with a wife who no longer needs, or even likes, him (it is Davis's second fine performance of the week, after The Matador). He's also goaded by the thorn of a failed novel - entitled, naturally, Breaking Point - which he seems to have written solely for the approval of his prize-winning novelist dad. This is a strand of the story that never quite plays, on account of Michael Caine's performance, which is intended to be hugely high-minded but looks merely inert. (Caine's American accent is as hopeless as ever).
Cage, on the other hand, carries his burden of disappointment and self-loathing quite wonderfully, and the script holds firm by not plumping a cushion of redemption to catch him at the end. There is something terribly sad, and terribly funny, in the moment when a passing motorist shouts, "Hey, Dave", and Cage cringes in anticipation of another pie being hurled at him: he turns round to find it's only his old dad. What did he do to deserve this trial by pastry? He muses, Pooterishly: "I bet no one ever threw a pie at Thomas Jefferson."Reuse content