Writer/Director Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is a film that led critic Roger Ebert to popularize the term “hyperlink cinema” and I think this film brought the public’s attention to this term more than any other film that has previously employed this technique, especially Gaghan’s own brilliant Traffic which won multiple Oscars, including one for Gaghan’s writing. But Gaghan is not the first filmmaker to employ this narrative technique. Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu has done it previously on Amores Perros and in fact it goes back to as early as the 1960s when Indian director Satyajit Ray used it on his Kanchenjunga. This is Gaghan’s first film as director and I have to say, it was a very self-assured and outstanding directorial debut that proved Gaghan’s talent behind the camera as well. Syriana revolves around the machinations of slimy corporate executives and cunning lawyers, espionage, disillusionment, terrorism, shifting alliances, betrayal and above all, the hunt for oil. Robert Elswitt has handled the cinematography and he successfully creates a sense of immediacy that evokes some of the best films of Michael Mann.
I have to say that Gaghan has got a lot of balls to come up with a film like this. He has woven an incredibly complex and multi-layered tale that spans several continents and attempts to reveal the invisible threads that link several greedy multinational corporations, power-hungry governments, espionage agents, immigrant workers, lawyers and an energy analyst. George Clooney plays Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA field agent is after a couple of shady arms dealers operating out of Iran. He is overseeing a deal to sell two missiles and becomes suspicious when he learns that one of the missiles is being diverted to an Egyptian terror outfit. A series of memos from Bob makes his superiors at Langley uneasy and they lure him with the prospect of a desk job. But before that, they hand him an assignment that they say would facilitate his transition to the desk job. The job involves assassinating the prince of a Middle Eastern country. For this purpose, he travels to Beirut but things don’t work exactly as planned and the CIA further distance themselves from him.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Middle Eastern prince, Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) is a good-hearted idealist who is opposed to his father’s plan of making his younger son the next Emir. “He is not even fit to run a brothel much less a country”, says Nasir. There is a reason behind this decision of Emir. Nasir has granted oil drilling rights to a Chinese company and this provokes the ire of an American oil company called Connex. When Connex learns that a rival company called Killen has secured the drilling rights in Kazakhstan, they attempt to forge a merger. This merger attracts the attention of an official in the U.S Justice Department and also Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), who runs a law firm. He assigns the task to a lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright). Whiting is a conniving power-hungry man who persuades Nasir’s father and younger brother to accept his offer to help and facilitate his ascension to the throne. Matt Damon plays Bryan Goodman who works as an energy analyst for a company in Switzerland. He is hired as an advisor by Nasir after Goodman’s son dies in a tragic accident inside Nasir’s palatial residence.
Running concurrent to these events is the story of Pakistani laborers working in one of Connex’s oil plants in another Middle Eastern country. After a Chinese management takes over, they are laid off and left without a job. While looking for a new job, two of the young laborers strike a friendship with an Egyptian fundamentalist who sees these two as potential terrorists and take them to a garage to show them a missile, which happens to be one of the missiles that Barnes sold earlier. All these lead to a tense finale that begs the expression “Two birds with one stone”. Despite the cold nature of it’s story and characters, one recurring motif is that of fathers and sons that manages to stir up some emotions. Each story has one. Barnes has a college going son who is pissed off by the fact that both his parents are “professional liars” and feels kind of betrayed by his father. Then there is another son, Prince Nasir, who is actually betrayed by his father. Goodman loses one of his sons. Holiday’s relationship with his father is a strained one. And then there is the laborer father who loses his son to the terrorists.
The film is a classic conspiracy thriller in the vein of some of the best conspiracy thrillers of the 70s like The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, etc. Instead of a single central protagonist, the film consists of multiple narrative strands that are inextricably linked and each exploring the events that shape the life of the protagonist of that particular strand. It’s loosely based on a book See No Evil by a former CIA employee named Robert Baer. It’s a well-known fact that the film has confused many moviegoers to an extent (including me) as well as the critics. It’s one of my favorite films and I’ve seen it more than twice. Every time I see it, I learn something new. It’s exactly the kind of multi-layered, dialogue-driven story that always gives me the kicks. It’s not an easy task to find all the answers as not all of them are presented to us on a silver platter. At some points in the narrative, Gaghan throws some stuff at us and challenges us to put two and two together. We are in the dark on several issues as much as some of it’s characters. We are not very clear on who is pulling all the strings and who is doing what to whom and why. It’s a pretty good reflection of the current state of the world.