There are a handful of complaints one can level against Syriana. For starters, it's awfully ambitious; wading deep into the muck of the worldwide oil industry—from the dark complexions manning the fields to the pasty and smug faces reaping the profits—the film occasionally risks collapsing under the weight of its own ambition. It also resists easy nutshelling, with at least a dozen characters occupying no less than five overlapping storylines. As a result, plotlines and character motivations can be hard to keep track of, especially given the film's stew of many languages.
But beyond these possible pitfalls is a film that raises a number of troubling questions—then refuses to answer them, leaving the audience tasked with sorting solutions out for themselves. In doing so, it lays the burden of the film on the audience's shoulders. Is it the Western World's dependence upon oil or religious fanaticism that fuels terrorism? Is corruption within the industry a necessary evil when keeping the world humming? Syriana leans heavily toward the left in such matters, but in the end, leaves it up to your conscience—and shades of red or blue—to provide you with any real answers. It's to the film's credit that it rarely preaches; it also slaps your hand away when you ask it to hold it, something never found in American films nowadays.
Across the board, performances are restrained and somber, perfectly matching the aesthetic mood director Stephen Gaghan sets from the onset. It's a mood built upon an unobtrusive camera, with every scene filled with pale lights and deep shadows. As a CIA man on the downslope of his career, George Clooney—blubbered out and overcome by gray—is the film's obvious poster boy, but he remains merely part of the patchwork here. This is Gaghan's film, and his ability to shine as a director—minus any and all flair—signals his arrival as a talent to notice. A film like Syriana requires ambition to spare, but it also necessitates a delicate touch, one free from ego and the useless fluff that normally accompanies it. Gaghan, in just his second film as director (his first, Abandon, starring Katie Holmes, was a mind-fuck-attempting disaster), has managed to nail nearly every note, delivering the sort of muckraking, questioning film rarely seen outside of the documentary aisle.
Comparisons between Syriana and the Oscar-winning Traffic are unavoidable—and also intentioned—but whereas Steven Soderbergh's War on Drugs screed was thoroughly undermined by its own simplicity (moral of the story: Drugs be bad), Syriana—executive produced by Soderbergh and Clooney, and part of their new-Hollywood narrative reality genre (see also HBO's K Street and Unscripted)—is not interested in easy exits. The usual suspects will no doubt squawk about anti-Bush bias and the so-called Blame America First Syndrome, but for anyone willing to look past the noise, Syriana is a first-rate film about the sticky business that we all have a guilty hand in.