Syriana may seem like a treatise on the corruption within the global oil industry, but it's actually an overstuffed memo. The film banks on the audience mistaking the convoluted for the complex and its bombardment of textbook information for actual ideas. The blame resides with writer-director Stephen Gaghan, a TV writer who gained legitimacy by shoehorning the outstanding 315-minute British mini-series Traffik into Steven Soderbergh's more easily digestible two-hour feature.
Gaghan tries to insert human interest into its broad story of political intrigue by giving George Clooney's bedraggled CIA operative a son who hates him and Jeffrey Wright's upwardly mobile attorney an alcoholic father that's perched on the sidelines like an albatross, but these devices feel less like added realism and more like Drama 101 justifications. The characters are never given time to sufficiently breathe. It's a pity, because any one of the half-dozen main characters are deserving of their own movie, but they suffer the Gaghan squeeze—they're meant to fit into his larger mosaic at the expense of sufficient development. That means they aren't as complex as they should be, but they seem that way because they fit into a jumbled narrative the viewer has to work overtime to decipher.
Shot with handheld cameras to provide that sense of newsreel urgency employed in Soderbergh's Traffic and filmed on location in diverse locations all over the world, Syriana is nothing if not ambitious. The performances are uniformly excellent without any of the ensemble cast resorting to grandstanding Oscar bids. If Clooney stands out as CIA operative Bob Barnes, it's because he gained 30 pounds and grew a beard, and carries an effortless sense of integrity, duly noted. The material seems thoroughly researched and the production values are high. It's all handled with a reverential sense of bloated importance.
Syriana deals with vital subject matter that most Americans are unfamiliar with, offering a crash course that merits a deeper, richer, more cogent analysis—one hopes viewers will be encouraged to venture out to the library and do their homework. What's dismaying is that Syriana passes itself off as an instigator of conversation and cultural soul-searching. Unfortunately, post-movie audience discussions probably won't be about oil. They'll be about whether or not Jeffrey Wright's moderately corrupt attorney was working for Chris Cooper's oil tycoon or Christopher Plummer's powerful law firm partner or David Clennon's attorney general—and how reform-minded Gulf Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig) is one of the "good Arabs" whereas so many of his colleagues that fall into line with American policy are the more typical "bad Arabs."
Will the easily lulled viewer recognize how superficial Nasir's idealistic policies are and how stereotypical both he and the young migrant worker from Pakistan, Wasim Ahmed Khan (Mazhar Munir), actually are? The Wasim subplot, which exists almost independently from the rest of the movie, is about how a kid laid off from his job in the oil field can find his way into the warped ideology of terrorism. Once again, Gaghan breezes through his subplot to make a point, not to represent a person. If movies are a tool for social change, it is because they touch our hearts and minds, if not our nerves—but Syriana feels like a fact-based, pragmatic, rambling dissertation from a graduate student. It has big ideas, but no pulse.