Like a Tom Clancy flick for progressives, Syriana operates at a heart-pounding and suspenseful breakneck pace, globetrotting from Beirut to D.C., Houston to Geneva, as it sketches the interconnected destinies of a Texas oil company, the Justice Department, a C.I.A. operative and Islamic terrorists.
But far from a late-night page-turner, Syriana often feels less like an escapist thriller and more like a contemporary nightmare transposed onto the screen of Americans occupying a country whose ideals they no longer recognize.
The film's remarkably accomplished and brilliant writer and director is Stephen Gaghan, 40.
Sitting in a conference room at Atlanta's Four Seasons Hotel, Gaghan is unpretentious, witty and eerily boyish for a man with so much hard living under his belt. Gaghan is a recovered drug addict, a divorced father of two small children and an Academy and Emmy awards-winning writer. Gaghan's regular stints in student government while growing up in Louisville, Ky., isn't that surprising: He retains the top-of-the-class charisma of a lifelong overachiever.
Most recently Gaghan has turned his formidable talents to directing a brutally intelligent and heartfelt film about the international oil trade. But Syriana is also about the bigger idea explored in his Oscar-winning Traffic screenplay, of how money and power have created an ugly and brutal schism in contemporary life, between the haves and the never-wills.
In Syriana's dense, thorny drama, the moral compromises money inspires are legion. In Geneva, American energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) profits from a personal tragedy when he becomes counsel to an oil-rich Middle Eastern prince. In Washington, lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is ostensibly investigating corporate wrongdoing in the good ol' boy world of Texas oil while moving up the corporate ladder by making sure corporate drilling in the Middle East is unobstructed.
Even the most sympathetic characters come with compromising traits. Gaghan elicits a profound sense of despair and shame for characters like Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir), a Pakistani guest worker treated horribly in the oil-rich Arab kingdom where he labors with his aging father. When Wasim eventually becomes a student of Islamic fundamentalism, the economic and emotional explanation for his conversion is clear. Bob Barnes (a nearly unrecognizable George Clooney with a heavy beard and substantial paunch) is a C.I.A. operative who thinks he's a patriot, but he may be unknowingly laying the groundwork for his government's unquenchable lust for Middle Eastern oil. That quest is pursued with the violence and anti-democratic agendas of any terrorist, Gaghan chillingly suggests.
Continuing in the vein of Traffic's doom-laden breakdown of the absurdly inadequate and ineffectual war on drugs, Syriana delivers an equally grim prognosis for an interconnected world divided by the scramble for oil.
"I don't think it feels so good to be an American right now," says Gaghan, who sees the money-worshipping bottom line of Syriana echoed every day in Washington. He invokes California Congressman Randy Cunningham, who recently admitted receiving more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who jumped from an unfinished war in Iraq to a cozy position as president of the World Bank, as ample evidence that the corruption and greed that makes for an engrossing '70s-style thriller finds its inspiration in an American government that has conceded its moral authority at the altar of mo' money.
During the year he spent researching Syriana, Gaghan hung out with "arms dealers, oil men, Gulf princes, C.I.A. agents, high-powered Washington lawyers," but says, "I only met one person who wasn't in it in some way or the other for money, or money's surrogate, power: Bob Baer." Baer is the author of the exposé of his life as a C.I.A. agent, See No Evil, which inspired Gaghan's film and the Clooney character.
"What I discovered is that the type of wealth that shoots out of the ground ... that wealth creates a kind of black hole. You could call it a moral black hole because of the types of compromises that it asks of you," Gaghan says.
By the end of Syriana, as in Traffic, its characters have retreated to home, to their wives, their parents and children, the place they have neglected in their grasp for more material things. It's a lesson that looms large over Gaghan's own life, raising children in the money-centric hyper reality of L.A.
"I think parenting really relates to government. I never set out to say that. We as a country have lost sight of the simple morality we teach our children that we have not expected of our government, or in ourselves."
The question Gaghan asks himself as the parent are the ones that end Syriana.
"What's our stewardship going to look like? What standard are we really holding ourselves up to? I want to feel good about myself as an American. I want to wear the white hat. Honest to God. I think that's the American character."