Syriana plays much like the film for which Gaghan won his screenwriting Oscar, Traffic. Intersecting at various points (without ever fathoming the connections) is an endless buffet of protagonists: the weary, disillusioned C.I.A. agent (played by George Clooney) betrayed by his bosses for seemingly capricious reasons; the slick energy analyst (Matt Damon) who parlays the death of his 6-year-old son into a gig working for a prince (Alexander Siddig) promising reform in his unnamed Middle Eastern country; the Washington lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) who will screw whomever necessary to clear the way for a merger between two petrochemical corporations; the sympathetically portrayed Pakistani oil-field worker (Mazhar Munir) lured into terrorism when he's tossed out of his job. Only much later does one stop to consider the flinty camerawork, the impatient editing (which tends to end scenes abruptly, almost arbitrarily), the tense score the things that make this a movie, not merely a treatise on global politics.
Gaghan based his tale on See No Evil, the riveting 2001 book by former C.I.A. operative Robert Baer, upon whom Clooney's Bob Barnes is based. Like Baer, Barnes is cast aside by the agency after an assassination attempt goes awry and he's forced to take the fall. (Clooney, obscured by a thick beard and a paunch, suffers much worse in a torture scene that caused him a real-life spinal injury; it's harrowing to watch on many levels.) Yet Syriana plays more like an adaptation of Baer's 2004 book Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, which portrays the U.S. government as a betrayed but forgiving whore with its "eye on [the Middle East's] bulging wallet lit by the moonlight on the dresser." Baer and Gaghan infuse their work with a vitality lit by anger, sadness and frustration; in their narratives, there are no heroes or saviors, only the culpable and the corrupt.
In Syriana, Barnes, an assassin, is the closest we come to a good guy. When we first see him, he's walking away from an exploding car that contains a terrorist and the missile launcher Barnes just sold him. Everyone else is knee-deep in moral quicksand especially Damon's Bryan Woodman, whose wife (Amanda Peet) comes to find his actions so reprehensible that she can no longer look at him.
You will not always know why someone's doing what he's doing; motives, if mentioned at all, are rarely offered in anything other than hushed whispers and slight nods of the head. Characters speak in the knowing aphorisms of the indignantly self-righteous or the tragically damned. "Corruption keeps us safe and warm," says Tim Blake Nelson as the senator who believes that doing bad is good for business; it's a matter of time, of course, before he takes the fall. Others are sacrificed in the name of what, we're never sure as the cost of doing business.
Yes, Syriana is confusing confounding, even but it's a provocative, infuriating, beautiful, and essential mess worth pondering. Gaghan, whose sole other directorial credit is his dreary thriller Abandon with Katie Holmes, has matured into some kind of cinematic New Journalist whose fiction resonates with facts he gathered over several years of traveling and note-taking with Baer as his guide. He damns one, he damns all including his audience, people who just want cheap gas, no matter what it costs the other guy. Fact is, Syriana may be the best advertisement ever made for a Prius.