Stephen Gaghan won a best screenplay Oscar a few years ago for Traffic, the epic examination of America's "War on Drugs" that was directed by Steven Soderbergh. Syriana, which Gaghan also wrote and which has its roots in his research for Traffic, takes the exact same wide-canvas, multicharacter approach to another global issue: the scramble for control of Middle Eastern oil.
Like Traffic, Syriana is a smart, ambitious film about a Big Topic that dares to be process-oriented instead of winnowing its story down to something more personal. It doesn't follow one or two characters through the maze but instead packs the frame with players -- CIA agents, Texas oil men, corporate lawyers, energy consultants, Arab royalty, Pakistani oil-field workers, terrorist recruiters -- in a manner that presents the global energy struggle as a vast organism.
But this time, Gaghan, whose only previous directorial effort was the Katie Holmes thriller Adandon, films the script himself, and the inevitable comparison with Traffic shows what a difference a director can make. Syriana has Traffic's scope and intrigue and impressive cast but lacks the zing and visual structure that helped put the earlier film's complex plot across.
In Traffic, Soderbergh color-coordinated each sphere of activity with a distinct visual style. In contrast to the identifiable locations and sure cross-cutting of Traffic, Syriana feels a little scattered, zipping from Washington to Houston to Geneva to Tehran to Beirut to Spain to the Persian Gulf while almost daring the audience to keep up.
Another place where Syriana falters in comparison to its predecessor is in giving characters that essentially serve as global chess pieces a human dimension beyond their plot function. In Syriana, George Clooney's CIA agent is saddled with a son who dreads another foreign assignment. Jeffrey Wright's oil-company lawyer is trying to care for an alcoholic father. Matt Damon's energy consultant loses a young son in a tragic accident.
But Gaghan fails to make these subplots translate from page to screen. Instead of deepening the characters, these tangents just feel like distractions. Traffic humanized its characters with less heavy lifting. Five years after seeing the film, I can still remember Don Cheadle's and Luis Guzman's DEA agents, who yearned to take down "the top people, the rich people, the white people." Syriana is dry enough to suggest that Soderbergh and his actors may have improvised that moment.
If Traffic struggled to hold all of its plot strands together, you can imagine how unwieldy Syriana can be, which takes the same approach, with less sure direction, to a topic about 10 times more complex.
This is a serious movie on a serious subject and one that assumes an informed audience, one that knows what Hezbollah is and can follow a discussion about Iranian cultural politics. But the connections -- "Everything is connected" is the film's tagline -- are so vast and sometimes convoluted that even the most astute newshound may get a little twisted around.
Syriana is not quite a liberal screed. The film is smart enough to know that the issues at play here are more complicated than a simple matter of good and evil, clean and corrupt. Chris Cooper's Texas oilman bends and breaks whatever rules he has to to secure foreign oil fields, but when he says, "China's economy hasn't been growing at the rate it could because they can't get enough oil. And I'm damn proud of that fact," it suggest his motives are also partly based on what he (and probably many viewers) perceives as patriotism.
Which isn't to say that this deeply complicated film doesn't have a grenade or two to launch into current debates over American foreign policy. The sight of Clooney's CIA agent being tortured in Beirut prompts the viewer to confront what similar acts are being committed in our name. And what may be most brave is how the film gradually and subtly encourages audience sympathy for an Arab leader the CIA is trying to take out.
The film's title is a Washington think-tank term for a hypothetical reshaping of the Mid East. That Syriana merely scratches the surface of this global dilemma is made clear by the complete absence of one word from Gaghan's script: Iraq.
Opening Friday, December 9th