Spies. Spooks. Call them what you will. The cinematic secret agent has tended to come straight from the gentleman's outfitters, suited and booted, ready for cocktails, dinner and a spot of baccarat. Not, though, the bearded, ragged, porky CIA operative George Clooney piled on 35lbs to play in Stephen Gaghan's riveting, ambiguous thriller. His Bob Barnes is world-weary and cynical, a browbeaten veteran. He speaks Farsi and Arabic, did good work in Tehran in the mid-'80s, and is happy to take out an enemy for the good of his country. He comes across as a real spy, working on instinct, rather than with gadgets. And that's key to Syriana (the cryptic title refers to the name given to the hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East). This may be a work of fiction, but it's also staggeringly relevant, tackling issues that are very real for every one of us.
Another plot-juggling, real-world epic from the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Traffic, Syriana has been labelled, rather too easily, as "Traffic with oil". Sure it's about the corruptive, global reach of the worlds of oil and politics, as well as the terrorist threat post-9/11 and the nefarious means employed by the intelligence community. But it's as much about inner rage and feelings of futility as about money and power. Dense, complex and criticised in the US press as confusing, this richly textured, challenging film does demand your concentration from the get-go. Unlike Traffic's colour-coded narrative, there's no easy entry here. Characters are introduced with scant exposition. Information is presented via hushed snatches of dialogue, not always in English. Deals are made in hotel rooms, plush law offices or on expensive yachts, often with little or no fanfare. The effect is rather like a mosaic. Gaghan wants you to work for the price of your cinema ticket. He wants you to think.
"Suggested by" See No Evil, a memoir by former CIA operative Robert Baer, Syriana expertly balances four main story strands - Clooney's disgruntled CIA field agent finding himself hung out to dry both in the Persian Gulf and back home; Matt Damon's ambitious energy analyst in Geneva turning a personal tragedy into a gifted position ("It's like somebody put a giant ATM on our front lawn"); a corporate DC lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) assigned to investigate the merger between two US oil companies; and Mazhar Munir's disenfranchised Pakistani teen ripe for remoulding by Islamic fundamentalists - and weaves them into a tight, tense, potent, blistering plot. Slowly, surely, these characters coalesce with, inevitably, tragic and explosive consequences. There are times when you won't know the good guys from the bad. But don't worry - they don't know either.
Superbly shot on location by Robert Elswit and directed with supreme confidence and economy, Syriana plays with a global canvas. But Gaghan never underestimates the power of human emotion - the most moving moments are the quiet and understated, such as a father holding his unsettled son at a window at night and still being there for him come morning. Short, punchy scenes drill right to the heart of every character.
Although it's Clooney's hirsute face torn apart on the poster, this is by no means entirely his movie. Not that he isn't terrific as an old-school agent frustrated by politicians' wilful simplicity and his superiors' complacency over a US missile falling into terrorist hands (who knew he was capable of conveying so much pain and regret?). But the beauty of the film is that no one actor stands out alone. This is a cast of Best Supporting Actors, an ensemble whose exceptional performances are almost too many to list but, well, here goes: Damon (quietly pained), Wright (quietly dazzling), Christopher Plummer (quietly oily), while Tim Blake Nelson and William Hurt score with barely a handful of scenes. Each one is a perfect piece in a puzzle that adds up to an ambitious, exceptional whole.
In the end, the film has, of course, much to say about the state of America today and the lengths it will go to protect its interests. But Gaghan doesn't lecture, nor forget Syriana is, fundamentally, a pulsating paranoid thriller in the vein of '70s conspiracy classics Three Days Of The Condor and The Parallax View. It's good enough to be mentioned in their company. Moreover, in an era of bum-numbingly lengthy movies, when even Bad Boys II can clock in at two and a half hours, here's a film that actually isn't long enough. When it ends, you're left wanting more.
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A demanding, exhilarating powder keg. Pay attention, embrace the complexity and you'll be rewarded with one of the year's finest films.