Loosely based on a memoir by one-time CIA field operative Bob Baer, Syriana (a term for a dream American puppet state in the Middle East) is at least as complicated as Traffic, which brought Gaghan a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2001. No quick summary can capture a plot that remains somewhat elusive through the picture's last frames. In his role as Foreign Minister of his unnamed Arab kingdom, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig) has negotiated a lucrative contract to sell his nation's oil to the Chinese, making his aging and ailing father's longtime American allies more than a little upset. As eldest son, Nasir assumes he will soon ascend to the throne, and he nurses reformer dreams of wielding oil money to build a modern democratic state with a parliament and civil rights for women. American broker Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) thinks Nasir's idealism is genuine, and if Woodman's company can soak up a couple of hundred million in supporting him, well what's wrong with doing well while doing right.
Moguls like Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) and Leland Janus (Peter Gerety) at American energy conglomerate Connex Oil and their politically connected lawyer Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) aren't quite so pleased, however. And they've got allies in the CIA. So they move against Nasir on two fronts. They wine, dine, flatter and bribe Nasir's younger brother Meshal (Akbar Kurtha) and convince his father to name Meshal heir apparent. For good measure they send CIA operative Bob Barnes (George Clooney) to assassinate Nasir. Barnes is one of the film's "little men" far removed from the plush offices of power where the fates of entire nations are decided by men who live on other continents. Barnes speaks Farsi and Arabic. He's cool under fire and utterly reliable. But he's not an automaton. He reports what he sees and when operations go haywire, he expects to be listened to. Silly man.
Barnes has a counterpart in the Islamic world, a young oil field worker named Wasim (Mazhar Munir) who loses his job in the Chinese deal and drifts into religious fanaticism, where he becomes the pawn of terrorists. Barnes and Wasim are examples of the kind of men who are sent to die for things they believe in by men who believe only in power and money. There are other characters as well, most notably Bennet Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), an ambitious young lawyer whose job hangs in the balance on the opposite side of the seesaw from his soul and Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), an obnoxious oil man whose motto is "Corruption's what enables us to win."
In an analysis it shares with Jonathan Demme's recent version of The Manchurian Candidate, Syriana proceeds from a political agenda hypercritical of the tangled connections between American foreign policy and international business conglomerates. The planet is running out of oil, but America has abandoned almost all efforts to limit our consumption. This makes controlling production fields essential. And that results in relationships with foreign governments often in conflict with our founding principles. We bully countries that try to pursue their own interests rather than ours, and we support brutal, medieval regimes like Saudi Arabia. I believe all of this, but I don't think Syriana would have converted me had I believed previously that our foreign policy was consistently altruistic. Syriana's politics are established background, not a thematic agenda.
As he did in Traffic, Gaghan dazzles us with his ability to juggle so many characters spread across such a huge geographical canvas. And he certainly keeps us watching, gradually revealing his premise that seemingly unrelated events are disturbingly connected. But impressive as this film is in many ways, it isn't essential because it never stirs us. And that's because its characters are either detestable or deluded, and in both cases distressingly destructive. Clooney's Barnes is changing as the film reaches its climax, but we're never quite close enough to him, and we never quite understand what he thinks he's up to. In the end, Syriana is a film to admire but not one to love.