After the ridicule heaped upon actors who meddle in politics in 2004’s entertaining puppet satire Team America: World Police, it is a brave Hollywood star indeed who dares to tackle the contentious world of contemporary politics.
Yet as the war in Iraq reaches its third anniversary, mainstream Hollywood seems finally to be catching up with the political debates that have been raging ever since the “War on Terror” was launched in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The figurehead for this new movement is emerging in the unlikely shape of a fat, bearded George Clooney.
Hot on the heels of his second directorial outing, Good Night, And Good Luck, which details media attempts at revealing dodgy governmental dealings during the 1950s, an outsized Clooney has stepped back in front of the camera to take on the might of the oil industry, earning himself an Oscar nomination in the process.
Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the man who wrote Steven Soderbergh’s wonderfully complex and thought-provoking Traffic, Syriana takes a similarly heavy-hitting approach to the role the oil industry and the US play in Middle Eastern politics.
All involved are fully aware of how controversial such a topic can be, especially in the wake of ongoing allegations about the connections of the big boys of the Bush administration to oil interests – from Bush’s own background in the industry to Vice President Dick Cheney’s old company’s Middle Eastern contracts and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice having an oil tanker named after her.
Much as with Traffic, this film is packed with highly politically and emotionally charged – and sometimes confusing – information in a convoluted series of loosely inter-connected storylines, each revealing a different aspect of the central theme. Whereas in Traffic that theme was the influx of illegal drugs to the US over the Mexican border, and their effect on either side, here it is the still little-known “Peak Oil” theory – the idea, scientifically backed, that the world’s oil production ability has passed its peak and we are heading towards a major crisis.
Syriana traces the back-room deals, the corruption and the desperation of those oil company and government officials charged with securing rights to the dwindling supplies, most of which are to be found in some of the most unstable countries on earth.
The lynch-pin of this complex geopolitical morass is George Clooney’s tubby CIA agent, a loyal and effective cog in the machine, calmly ordering assassinations before uncovering plots and schemes beyond anything he had imagined, even in his murky world of espionage and law-breaking.
The easy Hollywood option would have been to have the hunky Clooney tooling up with guns and going after the bad guys who have set him up; instead, he is bearded, scruffy, two and a half stones overweight, and turns in a truly captivating performance, even amidst a cast packed out with the heavy-hitting likes of Matt Damon, Chris Cooper and Christopher Plummer.
With its blend of Middle Eastern deterioration, Islamic fundamentalism, US corruption and the one issue which increasingly will dominate our lives over the coming decades, the sheer bravery of Hollywood tackling such an insanely complex idea deserves praise. The fact that it is pulled off with such aplomb should make this not just one of the movies of the year, but quite possibly of the decade.