Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
Much is made of Stephen Gaghan's dense, layered screenplay, the sort often called labrynthine. I'm of the crowd who believe that trying to keep up is part of the experience, and who like it that way. Watching this movie is an act of concentration, in which you spend half your brain power watching a scene and the other half stitching the previous scene into the growing quilt of scenes that came before it so that they make sense. None of this has anything to do with Gaghan's message, but it sure keeps you from dozing off. And hey, the whole plot's right there on Wikipedia if you get lost.
Gaghan's message is different things to different people. Many critics think that it's the futility of trying to control regional politics in the modern era. Roger Ebert understood it to be that the world's oil is running out and world powers are getting more corrupt in their pursuit of what little oil is left. Instead, it got me thinking with disgust about the oil barons of the Middle East who spend their fortunes on palaces, yachts, and sports cars while their people wither away from hunger and disease; if oil does run out in ten years, the region will again be poor and backwards. The hero of Syriana, if the film has any heroes at all, is a Saudi prince who wants to invest his oil fortune in his country to give it a future, and it's telling that this prince who happily sells every drop of oil he can is the West's target for elimination. Through the story of the prince and the Western men who influence his fate, sometimes from distant continents, Gaghan forges a tale of tension, sadness, and thought-provoking politics. It's worth seeing.