Before the world at large had seen a frame of Syriana, it appeared that the film's biggest talking point would be its controversial depiction of a U.S. foreign-policy apparatus beholden to the oil industry. Little did we all realize that we'd instead be debating the film's very penetrability. Writer/director Stephen Gaghan may have set a new standard for convolution with this ridiculously intricate potboiler, which defies first-time analysis (and may even render second and third viewings exercises in head-shaking bewilderment). Forget about determining if the film's outlook is right on, or mere Hollywood-liberal hogwash; Job One is piecing together what in the hell is happening.
Taking the conspiratorial complexity of his script for Traffic and raising it to the nth power, Gaghan assembles an all-star ensemble cast and sets them scurrying through a story of petro-political power-brokering you'd have to hold an advanced degree in global economics (or top-level clearance at Quantico) to properly comprehend. A U.S. oil concern has been aced out of a lucrative Middle Eastern contract, setting off alarm bells in the halls of industry and in Washington, where the ideals of spreading liberty and maintaining our competitive edge go hand-in-hand. Lawyers, covert agents and other operatives are sent in to protect our interests, jockeying for position as the foreign nation's emir decides which of his sons will inherit his throne. Meanwhile, changes at an American-owned facility push displaced Muslim workers into the clutches of religious fanatics.
Gaghan is so intent on ratcheting up the double-dealing, confidence-betraying intrigue that he barely bothers to establish his characters' identities and bedrock allegiances first. Even if you learn forward in your seat and concentrate until you're squinting like an echidna, you will be unable to completely and accurately discern who is doing what to whom and why. The only option left is to enjoy the film's individual dramatic elements as they whiz by, unencumbered by anything as unimportant as clarity. Hey, there's William Hurt! Wonder who HE's supposed to be playing?
The rub is that few of those elements are less than stellar. The performances have an unforced swagger that defies the limited parameters of the characters themselves (nobody gets a lot of screen time, not even the famously bulked-up George Clooney), and Gaghan's ear for real-world dialogue is almost peerless. An energy analyst (Matt Damon), his wife (Amanda Peet) and their kids have an amusing breakfast-table debate over the virtues of soy bacon; elsewhere, young Muslims debate the theological implications of Spider-Man. All told, it's the best two-hour clip reel ever made from an HBO miniseries that happens to not exist. I hope I get to see the entire thing one day, so I can catch up on whatever it was I missed.