A convoluted tangle of a film, Syriana (2005) is impeccably crafted, challenging and highly political. It skims across the globe, ricocheting from scene to scene and viewpoint to viewpoint, dramatizing the gnarly intersection of corporate greed, government power, and the intelligence world. The linear but highly complex story begins with a merger between two major U.S. energy companies: the smaller Killen has just secured coveted oil rights in Kazahkstan, prompting larger Connex to move in, a marriage of convenience. An inscrutable regulator named Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is tasked with investigating the merger for signs of corruption, but the deal has an immediate ripple effect, changing lives and nations.
Among those impacted: there’s Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an energy industry consultant thrust by fate into the employ of a progressive Middle Eastern prince (Alexander Siddig) who wants to revolutionize his small country’s approach to the energy business. There are two poor workers from a Middle Eastern oil plant (Mazhar Munir and Sonnell Dadral), laid off as a result of the merger, who undertake a desperate new path. And there’s grizzled CIA hand Bob Barnes (George Clooney), concerned about a missile that’s vanished as part of an operation, but who’s steered in other directions by superiors more concerned with the political ramifications of the deal. Without ever entirely spelling out the intricate connections between the story lines, the film manages to paint a nuanced portrait of an industry riddled with corruption, governments callously complicit, and common citizens caught in the unforgiving gears.
It’s a bleak portrait to be sure, and not even remotely for the right of wing. But the film is powerfully enacted by the entire cast, with Clooney, Damon, and Chris Cooper (as an unscrupulous corporate rep for one of the oil companies) standing out. It’s also remarkably sure-handed and uncompromising in its piecemeal story-telling technique, trusting the viewer to assemble its jagged puzzles pieces into a coherent picture. It makes for a disconcerting mosaic, both moving and engrossing.