One of the more telling exchanges in Syriana occurs almost as a throwaway. In it, two young Pakistani men, taking a break from the Islamic "school" that will eventually send them to their deaths, discuss a movie they both like, Spider-Man. One particularly admires how Peter Parker's battle with the spider within him works as a metaphor for the eternal struggle between good and evil, but laments that for him to truly be a spider-man he should paralyze his enemies and drain their blood. It's a small world, after all, but one open to an infinite number of competing interpretations.
But it's not just pop culture that draws it together, and that's the real subject of Syriana, which attempts to connect the dots between the various players in the oil trade—large and small—the way Stephen Gaghan's script for Traffic did with the drug trade. Here, Gaghan writes and directs, and though film might look a tad familiar—it bears the stylistic stamp and boasts some favorite actors of Traffic director Steven Soderbergh (who executive produces)—the familiar Traffic model suits Gaghan well. Here he tells a lot of small stories that form a bigger tale of dangerous ideals, corporate malfeasance, religious extremism, blind-eye governmental policies, and the casualties they combine to create.
Inspired by the work of CIA agent-turned-CIA critic Robert Baer, the film casts George Clooney as a Baer-like spy first seen making an undercover missile deal in Tehran. He ends up in even more dangerous spots before the film's end, thanks largely to a ground-level approach to Mid East policy at odds with the agenda of his bosses and the Neo-Con objectives they've set for the region. An economic advisor who, through tragic circumstances, ends up working for an oil-rich, reform-minded prince in an unnamed (but quite Saudi Arabia-like) country, Matt Damon lands in some unexpectedly unsafe situations as well. As does Jeffrey Wright, albeit without leaving the Washington-to-Texas air route he travels as a corporate lawyer attempting to negotiate a merger between oil companies for whom due diligence means turning up more than a few skeletons.
Gaghan brings in many more players, but edits the film into the lean, propulsive shape of a thriller. That ends up being something of a problem; some sub-plots never fully untangle and characters get lost as Gaghan rushes toward a conclusion that, taken on its own, is the stuff of a slightly hysterical leftie pamphlet. (On the other hand, in a political era where talk of secret prisons, torture as policy, and betrayed CIA agents has become standard, who knows?) Whether it goes too far remains open to a debate that will probably divide viewers along their existing political sympathies. But there's little debating that Gaghan's smart, universally well-acted film generates a queasy kind of excitement as it moves from pipelines to boardrooms to run-down hotels and other little-seen corners of an oil-driven world. In the process, Gaghan reveals the full extent of the mess we're all in while providing a reminder that it's not just superheroes locked in a struggle between good and evil.