Whether you hold any stock in conspiracy theorists hypothesis on just how far political administrations are willing to go to ensure the future safety of any investment in the resource, there's no denying that oil is phenomenally big business. With the world so dependant on its depleting reserve and Middle East relations at crisis point, Stephen Gaghan's Syriana proves a bold and timely exploration of the nature of capitalist and political desire in this contentious area.
Syriana has been talked up as a return to the no-nonsense cerebral thrillers of the seventies. With western civilisation embroiled in arguably the greatest uncertainty since the days of Vietnam, it's perhaps no surprise then, that the politicized 'agenda' film has started rearing its head again. The fact that Syriana has been produced in the first place, and has been received with such fanfare can only be a credit to the growing development and regeneration of Hollywood. Once again, films that ask the question can be seen at a local multiplex, and the answer doesn't necessarily have to involve consensus achieved via a barnstorming finale involving a muscleman and a big tank.
With a best supporting actor Oscar for his role here, and his face plastered firmly on the advertising campaign, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was Clooney's movie. In fact he is just one small cog in an expansive machine of characterisation, which attempts a somewhat epic exploration of a cross section of protagonists involved directly or indirectly in the world's thirst for oil, and the effect such energy demands have upon their lives. The cast is truly fantastic, with standout performances not only from Clooney as the jaded CIA operative, but also from Christopher Plummer and Chris Cooper as unscrupulous American oil magnates and Jeffrey Wright in a wonderfully restrained role.
Made with the same cinematic style as Gaghan's previous screenwriting effort Traffic, and Paul Haggis' recent effort Crash, Syriana shares many of these earlier films strengths, but also a few of their weaknesses. It's certainly an edgier, more intelligent film than either of its predecessors. At the same time however, the deliberate rhythm of the film, and the atypical stop-start narrative characteristic of movies of this type lend the proceedings somewhat of a portentous and cold atmosphere. It's branded as an intense thriller, but in reality it's more of a slow burning drama, a worrying frank tale that weaves a dark tapestry over its running time, as opposed to setting pulses racing.
All of this makes Syriana a film that's tremendously easy to admire, but somewhat less easy to truly love. As a direct result of the movies deliberate somewhat clinical style, there are moments of action that should provide emotional lynchpins in the unfolding structure, but instead leave the viewer rather cold and detached. With its enigmatic and aloof approach, Syriana never truly lets us into the inner circle of its characters. Maybe that is Gaghan's point: to stress how humanity is lost in the giant merciless shuffle of capitalist consumption and corporate and political corruption. If so, then it's a point very well executed. The downfall of this aesthetic however is that little time and space is afforded to allow the characters the breathing space to become real people. The pervading lack of emotion or humanity therefore makes it difficult for the viewer to illicit any identification for even the most sympathetic of characters from a generally unlikeable collection of protagonists. In his commendable effort to leave no stone unturned in this unflinching look at big oil, Gaghan seems to have sacrificed the smaller details that cement emotional contact from spectator to screen.
Despite its unapproachable nature Syriana is an intelligent and worthy film, one that should be seen and appreciated by anyone with an interest in cinema. What it certainly is not however, is a conventional thriller, and anyone lured in by the trailer expecting Clooney-heavy espionage action has been completely mislead. It's a brooding and ominous piece of work, important as much for what it stands for in terms of popular filmmaking as what it actually delivers on screen. Its unconventional nature may make it a hard slog for some, but the end result is enriching and worthwhile despite its flaws.