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FILM REVIEW ‌ Smoke and Mirrors

Labyrinthine geopolitics, oil, and greed drive a dense Syriana

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George Clooney in Syriana
  • George Clooney in Syriana
Syriana
Warner Bros.
Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, and Christopher Plummer
Rated R

Syriana's basic thesis is that, if you want to keep consuming petroleum products like there's no tomorrow, you're going to have to just get used to pan-national corruption, designed poverty, terror-cell-spawning, and doomed gambits to empire. But while writer-director Stephen (Traffic) Gaghan is to be commended for trying to upgrade the petro-politics discourse from the present administration's hall of mirrors obfuscation plan, the fact that his movie, by any measure, isn't very good, kind of louses up its excellent timing.

In trying to be a one-film introductory lesson in petro-maniacal greed, a '70s-style thriller, character study, and primer on assorted Middle East miseries, it's just too much information, and often as glib as it is incomprehensible. Ironically, it suffers from the odd problem of being -- at over two hours -- too short for any lasting impact.

Like Traffic, Syriana --reputedly think-tank speak for a US-influenced reshaping of the Middle East -- is a mosaic of thematically interlocking plotlines building up to a big traumatic event. The duped one here is Bob Barnes (George Clooney, portly and bearded), a career CIA agent and naif who believes he's doing good works. Until a fateful Tehran RPG sale goes haywire, Bob tries to find out why, ends up tortured for his troubles, and is then blacklisted by the FBI.

Less doomed by good intentions is Matt Damon's Bryan Woodman, an energy analyst trying to broker a deal with charismatic Prince Nashir (Alexander Siddig), possible next-in-line Emir of an unspecified Persian Gulf nation.

The event gluing everyone together is the merger between a smallish Texas oil company run by good ol' boy Chris Cooper and an energy mega-corp trying to get an exclusive on Kazakhstan's oil reserves. The merger is being squired by Bennet Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), an up-and-coming lawyer at a firm run by a reptilian power broker (Christopher Plummer).

Confused yet? Too bad -- there's more. Like Bryan and wife (Amanda Peet), who suffer the loss of a son, Bennet is allowed one non-political problem/relationship. In his case it's a strained relationship with his father (William C. Mitchell). Bob, meanwhile, gets to deal with an understandably alienated teen son (Max Mingella).

While adding a slight human element to the proceedings, these rote relationships also add to an already cluttered picture, and detract from a more vital parallel story -- that of the people at the shit end of the international oil Ponzi scheme -- the Arabic and/or Muslim workers hired at third-world wages and fired without notice or support. The result: several become enmeshed, for lack of better options, with a radical Islamic terrorist cell.

There's some crisp filmmaking here, and there's no denying the emotional wallop of the finale's crescendo of horrific consequences. But with few time-outs to assimilate the film's ceaseless data gush, one's just too busy trying to recall who's trying to screw whom for which corrupt reason in which Middle Eastern locale to get much involved in what scant human drama there is. 

Still, there are some perversely fun, over-the-top piercing bits. One favorite is a crazed Gordon Gekko-esque "Greed is good" update by Tim Blake Nelson's Grover Norquist-ian deregulation advocate, in which he shouts such moral nihilism nuggets as "Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation!"

While there is a jittery intensity to Syriana (even when we've no idea what it's about), it finally leaves us feeling disgusted at being of the same species as its characters and helplessly depressed. The disgusted part's fine. The helpless part, not so much.

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