In the swirling political thriller Syriana, George Clooney, as a used and abused CIA operative, recalls another George: Smiley—John Le Carré’s long-suffering secret-service agent. Both Smiley and Clooney’s character, Bob Barnes, are shrewd, well-connected, middle-aged spies who nonetheless allow their governments to use them as pawns in high-level hugger-mugger. Clooney, who reportedly put on 30 pounds in 30 days for this role, walks with a stumpy waddle; you can even see a roll of fat around his waist during a torture scene, an otherwise harrowing sequence that will have you clenching your seat’s armrests. Clooney suffers for his art here, but he and writer and director Stephen Gaghan (who wrote Traffic) do deliver the art: a film that transcends its obvious timeliness to say some elemental things about personal loyalty and institutional betrayal.
Clooney’s character is based on Robert Baer, a former CIA agent whose book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism inspired some of the plot. Bob—as everyone calls him—brokers arms deals with pro-American insurgents in Syria and Lebanon. Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America) plays Bennett Holiday, a Washington lawyer investigating the pending merger of two U.S. oil companies, who’s pressured to keep quiet about dirty dealings in the Middle East. Conflicted and distracted (his alcoholic father, played by William Charles Mitchell, keeps reappearing on Bennett’s Georgetown stoop), Bennett is appalled at the amorality he discovers in everyone from his boss (Christopher Plummer) to the braying Texas founder of Killen Oil (Chris Cooper, doing a tumultuous Ted Turneresque turn).
Two other plotlines are woven carefully into the movie. One follows a young, indigent Pakistani migrant worker (Mazhar Munir), whose bleak prospects make him easy prey for terrorist recruiters, and the other tracks Matt Damon as an American energy analyst whose young family is endangered when he’s forced to take sides in an internecine feud between a young sheikh bent on reforming his Persian Gulf nation (i.e., rejecting much of his country’s reliance upon American benevolent control) and the sheikh’s callow, pro-American brother.
If I’m making Syriana sound like an anti-American Hollywood broadside, my sentiments are more in line with those of co-producer Clooney, who’s said the movie is not anti-Bush, but rather “an attack on corruption. It’s not black-and-white.” And indeed, it’s made clear that decades of American leadership, during Democratic as well as Republican administrations, have led to the volatile oil policies and politics of today.
In crucial supporting roles, Gaghan has cast faces familiar from TV: Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Jamey Sheridan as a deputy CIA chief; Peter Gerety from Homicide as an oleaginous oil-man; David Clennon—Miles Drentell from thirtysomething—as a malevolent assistant attorney general, all of whom demonstrate that the more intimate skills of TV acting can close the distance between the viewer and the big screen.
As he did in Traffic, Gaghan intertwines his disparate subplots with impeccable pacing—his screenplay is a model of how to arrange scenes so that each one ends leaving you wanting to know more. One minute you’re thoroughly immersed in Jeffrey Wright’s crisis of conscience, then plunged into the more immediately dire life of Munir’s Wasim, who’s laid off from his miserably hot work in a corporate oil field. And then Gaghan reminds you: Oh, yeah, we haven’t seen Clooney’s Bob in a while, what’s he up to now?
Clooney (so ego-free in his acting, so hangdog-despairing) and Damon (in a quietly delicate performance as a man burying shattered emotions) lend Syriana its necessary star-burst. If at times the complexity of the plot—which I don’t claim to have completely followed on just one viewing—threatens to overwhelm viewers, the extra exertion becomes part of the pleasure. That, and the movie’s distinctive, discomfiting take on moral rot, the overriding quality that seeps throughout Syriana like blood, or oil.