My advice? Don't see Syriana at the cinema wait for the video. Stephen Gaghan's much-hyped film confronts the corruption of the global oil trade and its domination of geopolitics a complicated issue at the best of times and tries to include every aspect of its subject. The result is a Dickensian number of interrelated plot strands, all squished into two quite troubling and not occasionally bewildering hours. At least if you watch it on video you can pause it and ask someone what is going on, instead of being hushed into a frustrating silence by the woman in the row behind.
Let me help by offering a quick register of all the plot strands (feel free to keep this for reference). Bob (George Clooney, again) is a CIA operative who made his name infiltmting Hezbollah in the 1980s; he speaks Farsi and Arabic and does the American government's dirty work in the Middle East; Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is a successful oil derivatives trader who lives in Geneva with his lovely young family; Connex is an American oil company whose executives are trying to seal a merger deal that is being scrutinised by the government for corruption; Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer) is the "cat's paw of the Arab princes", the founding father of Whiting Sloane law firm, contracted by Connex to provide a bogus corruption report and outsmart the federal investigator; Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Cooper) is the eager lawyer employed by Whiting Sloane to take charge of the case; Emir Al-Subaai is the ruler of a rich oil kingdom, and has two sons, the older passionate and reforming (Prince Nasir). the younger decadent and spoilt (Prince Meshal); finally,Ara.ah (Kayvan Novak) is a sweet young Pakistani guy who is sacked from a Connex oil facility in the Emirates and becomes the pupil of radical Islamic cleric Mohammed Sheik Agin, who (phew. we got there) once stole a missile from Bob.
The whole thing is almost brilliant. It is finely researched, fast-moving, challenging, very well acted and quite well shot. The artistic difficulty is that this technique multiple, masterfully interwoven plots painting a general canvasis actually more effective in novels, when you have time to get to know everyone. than in films. I have seen Syriana twice, and although there are some horrific moments of sadness and violence, I don't feel I
could describe a single character to you in detail. Instead of emotional involvement you end up with a distant, wilting sense of people everywhere going to rot.
In short, the artistic success of this film has been trumped (as seems to be the trend this year) by Politics. The political message of the film relied on the need to show all the human faces of this global power game, and so they did. Instead of the black and white message that comes from the White House, this film attempts to show how the current stand-off between the Islamic world and the West is the result of a complex series of macropolitical and macro-economic strategies the little guys are all just as human and vulnerable as the next.
So, for the short time we see them, every character I listed earlier is humanised in the context of his family. Bob doesn't get on with his son. Bennett the lawyer has an alcoholic father, Bryan Woodman loses his son in an accident.
Arash's father dreams of the snowcovered mountains of Pakistan even mean old Dean Whiting lets Bob off when his family is threatened.
But, powerful as it is. I still found Syriana slightly creepy. and I will tell you why.
"Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardoner", so said Madame de Stael. Well, actually, she didn't. The real quote is, "Tout comprendre rend tres indulgent", and that's just it. Ara.sh, the suicide bomber in the making, is so innocent, sweet, and impressionable. he makes all the fat Texan oil barons look like monsters. Do you not lose your right to be understood if you choose to blow yourself up? And why did Mr Janus, the owner of Connex Oil, lose his right to have a humanising family? Syriana is entitled to its liberal agenda (pointlessly philosophical though it may be); what is sinister is the whiff of fanaticism wrapped up in an apparently even-handed, righteous veneer.