Mad, bad world

Film - A self-consciously serious look at the brutality of geopolitics. By Victoria Segal

Syria

Railing against Hollywood for insulting the audience's intelligence is a reliable pleasure among the carping classes, so it comes as rather a shock when the moral high ground is swept away and a mainstream film leaves you feeling so bewildered by its plot twists that you start to doubt whether you are fit to have the vote. "Everything is connected," announces the tag line for Stephen Gaghan's Oscar-nominated Syriana, displaying the kind of stylish paranoia that chimes so easily with modern sensibilities. Those trying to join the dots through this blood-and-oil thriller might disagree, however, and find they end up with something that looks more like a Jackson Pollock drip painting than a clearly defined political drama.

Even though Gaghan, as writer-director and in the style of gimmick-happy B-movie directors, should offer a cash prize to viewers who can explain just which oil company did what, or who exactly that suited spook is, Syriana is not exactly a masterpiece of big-brained film-making. Instead, at times, it seems as if somebody had knocked over a government filing cabinet, randomly gathered up a load of suspect dossiers, and decided to bundle the whole lot together as a script. Big business, the CIA, suicide bombers, the US government - it's a piece of feverish post-9/11 angst that, in another life, might be equally at home camping outside the Pentagon with nothing but its conspiracy theories to keep it warm.

Yet for all its confusions and weaknesses, Syriana maintains a horrible credibility. "Corruption keeps us safe and warm," snarls one suited operative, and this film is committed to finding just how deep the rot reaches. What might in simpler times have been the sort of political potboiler that features exploding cars and smouldering Hollywood terrorists of the kind satirised in Trey Parker's Team America: world police is instead a self-consciously serious look at the casual brutality of high-level geopolitics. You can tell it's a serious film because its star, George Clooney, gained 35 pounds and a beard to play the role of Bob Barnes, a CIA operative, and he wouldn't have done that for the 1997 nuclear-age nonsense The Peacemaker. Barnes, the crumpled, ursine soul of this film, is cut loose by his handlers after a mission turns bad, and he suddenly realises that his unthinking dedication to serving his country has covered up a multitude of sins. In interconnected plot lines, lawyer Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is put in charge of a merger between two oil companies and their interests in Kazakhstan; Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the progressive would-be emir of an oil-rich Gulf state, seeks to improve his country's social and economic situation by shifting the focus of drilling rights from America to China; and Bryan Woodman, an energy analyst (the eternally plastic Matt Damon), finds himself morally compromised when an accident at the old emir's house leaves his young son dead but his financial situation wildly improved.

For a mainstream film, Syriana is im-pressively fearless, tackling subjects that, 50 years ago, would have got it drummed out of Hollywood for un-American activities. Everyone here, with the possible exception of the reforming Prince Nasir, is morally ambiguous, but there is little doubt that the real villains are US corporations and intelligence, desperate to control the oil that the world depends upon and keen to bump off a good man they see as a threat to their interests.

The film's least successful strand even offers a view of suicide bombers that could be perceived as sympathetic. Wasim (Mazhar Munir) and Farooq (Sonnell Dadral), migrant workers labouring for Connex in the nameless Gulf state, find that their financial and social disillusion- ment makes them perfect fodder for terrorist recruiters at the local madrasa. Their transformation is unconvincing, bordering on the sentimental - it is something of a failing that everyone involved in this plot line seems to talk in a stiltedly poetic way about mountains and snow - and it seems to happen so rapid-ly that you suspect Gaghan, who also wrote Traffic, of editing down his material to the point of incoherence.

There are other weaknesses (a woefully unconvincing "British" newscast is particularly jarring) but Gaghan could pass off some of the film's lack of clarity as a devotion to complexity. Characters flit across the screen, never developed or explained, while actors of the calibre of William Hurt and Christopher Plummer play generic, X-Files-style suits. But if you can avoid getting too hung up on the details, Syriana is a brave attempt to blitz the goody-baddy dynamics of cold-war film-making and concentrate on the ambiguities of modern geopolitics. Gaghan's verite stylings - wobbly camera-work, slow cuts of cityscapes, news broadcasts - lend a queasy uncertainty to every scene. Meetings are held in cars whose smoked-glass windows slowly roll down, streets are seen through rain-spattered windscreens. There is paranoia and doubt in every shaky frame.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Where did it all go wrong?