Good fiction has one important advantage over documentary. It allows you to ask, “What if?” Documentary may challenge “facts”, but fiction creates hypothetical scenarios of endless ingenuity that frees us to explore the sense of right and wrong from myriad points of view. One of the characteristics of the mature intellect is the ability to encompass many perspectives and use multiple paradigms, before attaching great weight to any particular position.
As a modern day global thriller, Syriana, rather than trying to push home a particular agenda, ekes out justifiable reasons behind the actions of a multitude of differing individuals, governments, cultures, corporate bodies and institutions that have one thing in common, the high stakes and power plays flowing from the procurement and availability of oil. Its interweaving stories in many locations force us to try and make sense of an international tragedy facing our planet, in what President Bush has described as the “addiction to oil.”
Using facts from a work of non-fiction, See No Evil by Rober Baer, Syriana starts in Iran with George Clooney almost losing control over the movement of some armaments. A few minutes later, in a street in Tehran, there is a casual, possibly unconnected explosion that destroys any illusion of this being a nice, comfortable spy movie.
It was at this point that I decided Bad Things were going to happen – repeatedly. Already, the film was displaying a clinical realism, suggesting no storyline would be sweetened.
Writer/director Stephen Gaghan takes a similar multifaceted approach to the one he used in his award-winning Traffic, empathetically tracing the lives of people from very different worlds as they interconnect and converge on a single theme. Clooney, as a veteran CIA operative, confronts various dilemmas in trying to do his job in the face of interference, personal crises and survival under torture, while attempting to make a positive difference in a messed-up world.
His bosses look at a more global picture. Potentially sensible, civilised developments in the tradition-laden world of the Gulf princes could alter the balance of power in a damaging way. The free enterprise and profitable (questionable) merger of two Texan oil companies creates apprehension in Washington and among energy experts, which also impacts on the lives of migrant workers in a way no one considers.
Clooney’s son has typical university student angst, righteously (simplistically) accusing his parents of being professional liars. Energy consultant Matt Damon and his wife (Amanda Peet) find their relationship increasingly strained as his professional commitments become more dangerous. Their eight-year-old son provides a rare moment of comic relief at a family vegetarian breakfast by demanding “pig bacon.”
Approaching hefty problems on every level, as well as reminding us of the human commitment, energises Syriana in a way few movies dream possible. We can identify with most of the characters, or at least admit their reality. None are perfect and all are prey to the greed and corruption of others, whether it is a conflicted businessman, or an uneducated and penniless youth living in the shadow of a Middle-Eastern oil field. Whatever your politics, or beliefs, Syriana is sure to cast doubt on them, but in not taking sides it makes us aware of aspects we might not otherwise have considered.
Minutely researched and executed, the film poses stark questions that are too uncomfortable even to ask. A Deputy National Security Advisor (Viola Davis) tries to simplify it: “India is now our ally. Even China will be an ally. Everybody between Morocco and Pakistan is the problem. Failed states and failed economies. But Iran is a natural cultural ally of the US. The Persians do not want to roll back the clock to the 8th century. I see students marching in the streets. I hear Khatami making the right sounds. And what I’d like to know is, if we keep embargoing them on energy, then someday soon are we going to get a nice, secular, pro-Western, pro-business government?” Agent Barnes (Clooney), from hard experience, tries to dissuade her of such wishful thinking, but is dexterously sidelined in favour of People Who Have Answers.
Syriana is a venture of Participant Productions, a company that aims to make socially relevant films that also have broad appeal, and it is their most accomplished offering to date. An action-packed, critically intelligent thriller, it doesn’t take sides, or offer solutions, and the effect is both breathtaking and harrowing.