Syriana is a well-intentioned political drama with subject matter that suggests the old saw, "ripped from today’s headlines." Misleadingly advertised as a thriller, it is a multi-stranded story of intrigue and power plays to control scarce oil resources in the Gulf and elsewhere (an ex-Soviet Republic comes into play).
Each storyline exposes the corruption, ruthlessness, and utter cynicism of the various players in this deadly game. A proposed merger between two American oil companies comes under the scrutiny of the United States Department of Justice. Shady (read illegal) deals by the companies will be covered up by the government, in the interest of American control of oil resources.
Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a veteran CIA operative shown to be as effective an assassin as he is an information gatherer. His character is the central attempt at a sympathetic portrayal and there is an element of honesty to the guy. He’s assumed that the dirty tasks he performs are in the greater good. Yet when he testifies about the real implications of what he has seen, he is cold shouldered. Still, paid government assassins, who live a web of lies and play "company man" would seem more morally accountable than writer director Stephen Gaghan is willing to apply to Barnes. A movie, even a serious expose, needs a hero, one supposes.
Other story strands involve Nasir, an idealistic, reform-minded Arab prince who employs a Geneva derivatives dealer (Matt Damon) as an advisor. But powerful Washington players see the prince’s more controllable younger brother as the better heir to the throne and will do whatever necessary to block Nasir. And then there are the poorly paid migrant laborers in the oil fields, seeking a better life while the corporate profiteers rake in their billions in profits.
It isn’t a pretty picture.
But it is a picture that people need to see, understand, and take to heart. Unfortunately, the movie does not make any of that easy. The various storylines are hard to follow (few will not get lost in the plot), the narrative momentum dissolves in the confusion, and the multiplicity of characters means that none of them (except Barnes) is more than two dimensional. It’s impossible to make any emotional connection with the drama, so its impact is seriously diluted.
A good documentary film on the subject would be less subject to compromise and presumably presented with greater clarity, but it would probably be impossible to make, given the broad accusations of corruption in the highest places. Still, are not the daily newspapers rife with stories of corporate and government corruption, cover-ups and lies? Does anybody still read the newspapers?