There’s a moment in Stephen Gaghan’s new film when, if you don’t already believe it to be the truth, you will be convinced of how evil and misguided our vice president is. Bob Barnes (George Clooney) has been captured, and he is having his fingernails systemically pried off as his tormentor tries to excise a bit of choice information from the CIA agent. But although the violence is certainly difficult to stomach – perhaps the best description of the entire film – the thing about the torture that makes Cheney look so inhuman is the fact that it’s entirely ineffective. Though there is no more torture, the tone of this scene, and the fact that America is doing despicable things just to serve our own interests, fuels the angry and intelligent Syriana. There’s a ton of plot in this movie, and it’s not exactly easy to keep pace with it, something that seems to have been quite intentional. In one story, Bob comes to realize he’s being kicked around by his employers, the CIA. In another, Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) loses a son in a freak pool accident and uses this as leverage to become the advisor to an Iranian prince (Alexander Siddig). Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a DC lawyer, gets pushed into the middle of a merger between two massive oil companies, a union that comes to affect every other plotline in despicable ways. And just in case a faction of the potential audience wasn’t angered enough, a recently laid-off youth gradually is convinced to become to a suicide bomber in a way that, while disturbing, does a fine job of putting a human face onto inhumane acts. Woodman’s son dies early on at the Prince Nasir’s home, but instead of showing any sort of grief, he seizes the opportunity to become Nasir’s obscenely well-compensated financial advisor. The interactions between Nasir and Woodman show us an unexpectedly progressive person who would be foolishly classified as “Them” by the folks in the White House, and an opportunistic and sleazy hired gunman who doesn’t exactly make his country look great. Nasir makes a speech about what he hopes to do after his father expires.
Perhaps the film’s most virtuous character, Prince Nasir suffers because of his unfortunate situation; he’s an Oxford-educated, progressive member of the royal family, which would be a ticket to happiness for most, but as Syriana makes heartbreakingly clear, is not the case for people obstructing the business of big oil companies. Tim Blake Nelson, who only appears three times, makes a speech about corruption that rivals Michael Douglas’s about greed in Wall Street. When added to the performances of all the other actors in the film, from Clooney to Damon to Peet, to bit-players like William Hurt, Jayne Atkinson, and Nelson, Syriana ascends to a rabble-rousing greatness. Syriana is a brutal and ugly film, and though it’s not quite perfect (a subplot or two could have been shaved off), it is vital for the current political moment.
You might not like Syriana if you’re predisposed to believe that everything America does is right. But if you believe that you’d probably prefer to hide this movie under as many layers of Hannity as possible. Fortunately for everyone, one thing that is great about this country is our right to free speech, and Syriana makes excellent use of it.