In his superb documentary Looking for Richard, Al Pacino comments how hard it is for actors and audiences to keep straight all of the characters in Shakespeare’s historical plays. Watching Syriana, I kind of knew how he felt. This film is confusing and not because it’s badly written or any other fault of its own. It’s confusing because it’s about oil and politics, a subject that lends itself naturally to confusion.
Syriana weaves several stories into a complex narrative that spans three continents and looks unflinchingly at what people will do for oil and the consequences that result.
A huge U.S. oil company has been kicked out of the Middle East in favor of the Chinese, while another, smaller company has locked up exclusive rights to oil from Kazakhstan. The small company is now being purchased by the larger one and the U.S. Justice Department thinks this is just a little too convenient.
The senior partner (Christopher Plummer) of the law firm representing the merger tasks an ambitious young lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) to make sure that the Justice Department is satisfied without killing the deal.
An ambitious young oil trader (Matt Damon) attempts to secure a relationship with the royal family of an oil rich arab nation that seems a lot like Saudi Arabia. A tragic accident costs him his son but the royal family’s attempts to make amends for the loss ensnares the man in the family’s struggle the succeed the ailing Emir as ruler. The heir apparent (Alexander Siddig) is a modernist reformer but unwilling to dance to America’s drum. The younger son (Akbar Kurtha) is a decadent playboy who’s far more pliant to the desires of the west.
A CIA operative (George Clooney) uses an arms deal in Tehran to assassinate two Iranian arms dealers, but one of the missiles he’s “selling” winds up in the hands of a suspicious man who does not speak the Iranian language of Farsi. The agent’s efforts to alert his superiors fall on unconcerned ears. Instead, he is sent to Beirut to take on the Emir’s eldest said. Instead, he is betrayed and falls into the hands of a rogue member of Hezbollah, who uses him to embarrass the agency. To distance themselves, the CIA starts an “investigation” into the assassination in Iran.
Finally, the Chinese deal has caused many oil workers in the Middle East to lose their jobs. Two Pakistani youths are taken under the wing of a fundamentalist Sheik, who instructs them on the “glories” of martyrdom.
Even if you are never certain how all of these people relate to each other, you are never completely lost. The characters are all individuals whose motivations seem real and understandable. The documentary style camera work and the Moraccan and Dubai locations give the film a visceral sense of reality. You get the feeling you are witnessing events rather than watching a movie plot unfold. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan did his homework well and makes the world of Syriana seem as real as the one on CNN. On second thought, it might even be more real than the one on CNN.