Directed by Stephen Gaghan. USA. 2005.

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A weaving screenplay through three differing locations of geo-political structures focusing on three main characters, it may sound like Traffic, but this is no Soderbergh picture although it does mark a directorial effort by Stephen Gaghan who gained an Oscar for his screenplay on that film.  Whereas Soderbergh had the visual panache to give each setting its own tone of colour, Gaghan does not have that sense of style but instead focuses on the characters and what effect the political climate has on their emotions.   

Whereas a Traffic character (Douglas, Del Toro and Cheadle) would seek some sort of retribution, the Syriana trio: Bob Barnes (Clooney), Bryan Woodman (Damon) and Bennett Holiday (Wright) are all some form of detectives seeking answers and validation of their faith in their job and country.  While this is very American in tone in terms of making them all very individualistic of their actions, Gaghan juxtaposes this with a roving camera over a young Muslim who after being sacked - due to the conglomeration of the two oil firms that forms the basis of the corruption narrative - starts reading the Qu'ran and is recruited to sacrifice himself.  This gives the film some balance and does not stereotype the 'terrorists', and actually goes to some lengths of humanising them by having them question their own faith and giving them family members themselves to worry over.  Gaghan has been criticised for going to this length with his depiction of the 'other' side but maybe Gaghan has the final side as the bomb the young Muslim uses to create his own terror was supplied by the American government. 

The film is very patriarchal with a lot based on father-son relationships - Barnes' son dismisses him as a liar; Woodman becomes the advisor to an Arab prince after his son dies in the Arab's pool and the Arab prince himself is overlooked by his dying father. And Bennett comes home from work every night to find his drunken father on his doorstep.   But all three men do find some forgiveness in their end - Woodman returns home to his wife in America, Barnes goes against his government and Bennett forgives his father after forsaking his boss over a botched deal.  Matriarchs are absent (Barnes' wife is spoken of but never seen) and Amanda Peet's role - as Julie Woodman - slowly becomes not that of a trophy wife but a forgotten mother who wants the best for her family.  There are only two other speaking roles for women in the rest of the film.  

While the film's narrative is similar to Magnolia, Nashville and, obviously, Traffic it is not as far-reaching in its scope as a lot of periphery characters are quickly (and suddenly) introduced and then just as quickly abandoned, for example William Hurt's role as Clooney's ex-partner.  We also have some bad casting - Christopher Plummer plays the shrewd head of a law firm who is sinister because of his furrowed eye-brows and Tim Blake Nelson characterisation of a lobbyist is reduced to being a hick in glasses spouting out how corruption keeps him warm and helps him sleep at night.  But the rest of cast excel; Damon who plays the neutral (the film sees him start in Switzerland) liberal does very well at some sort of grief; Wright has to contend with all manner of problems due to his skin colour but grows in the role as the film progresses and Clooney does punch above the weight he has put on 

As for Gaghan, while his directorial skills are not as flamboyant as his namesakes at least he has had his say in this current political climate, but with such a stellar cast it just seemed that his script becomes just as ambiguous as the current political climate.

Jamie Garwood
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