Successful movie are, it's said, the ones whose story and appeal can be expressed in a single sentence. To summarize Syriana, writer-director Stephen Gaghan's drama about petro-politics, you would need a book the size of The 9/11 Commission Report. Hopscotching across the globe, packing enough plots for half a dozen thrillers, refusing easy judgments of its characters, the film has a worldview that is mature, synoptic, careworn--light-years from the standard Hollywood movie. The closest we can get to pegging Syriana in a phrase: it's smart.
Gaghan wrote the script for Traffic, whose three complex story lines director Steven Soderbergh helpfully tinted in different colors. Nothing like that in Syriana. It zigzags from the Middle East to Europe to the U.S. as if to test both your patience and your eye-brain coordination. Yet the film does see the world in three colors: black, for the oil that brings out man's cunning and killer instinct; gray, for the shades of honor and self-interest by which the main players try to define themselves; and red, for the blood spilled in Allah's and oil's names.
In its most reductive form, Syriana is about a businessman (Matt Damon) mixed up with oil sheiks, a poor Pakistani (Mazhar Munir) desperate to give meaning to his life and death, a CIA agent (George Clooney) on the trail of terrorists and a very big oil deal.
This is Clooney doing a De Niro, growing a beard and cocooning himself in flab. The actor must want to prove that his star quality is more than just Cary Grant looks and a stud's sly aplomb. It is. Here he seduces the viewer into looking closer, to catch the eye glint of skeptical intelligence, the interior burden that a samurai for the CIA bears with weary grace, and for reasons he may have forgotten or never known.
Syriana is one of three new films, all meaty and intelligent, told in part from the view of a suicide bomber. Hany Abu-Assad's gnarly, poignant Paradise Now is set on the West Bank; Joseph Castelo's knockout nail biter The War Within takes place in New York City. But both have the monomania of an Islamic jihadist and the momentum of a Hitchcock movie about a bomb on a bus. Their simple narratives are the fuse that inexorably leads to the big blast. Syriana also ends with an explosion, but its journey there is through a labyrinth.
Gaghan relies on Clooney's agnostic heroism to lure viewers into his maze. When they get there, they will find not a conventionally satisfying movie but a kind of illustrated journalism: an engrossing, insider's tour of the world's hottest spots, grandest schemes and most dangerous men.