directed by Stephen Gaghan
(Warner, 2005)

Bob Barnes is a "Canadian" CIA agent with a reputation for being a bit of a loose cannon. Bryan Woodman is a Geneva-based energy analyst working as a partner in a derivatives trading company. And Prince Nasir is the reform-minded son of an emir who's about to lose out in the succession battle to his pool-shooting playboy brother, Prince Meshal Al-Subaai.

What brings Barnes (George Clooney), Woodman (Matt Damon) and Nasir (Alexander Siddig) together is the looming merger of the Connex and Killen oil companies, a deal so huge it would make Connex-Killen the 23rd-largest economy on the face of the Earth.

That's raised eyebrows at the U.S. Department of Justice, which has launched an investigation. Not to be outdone, Connex has launched an investigation of its own, headed by Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), an attorney whose firm represents Connex.

Now if you're not confused yet, you will be soon after you sit down to watch Syriana, the film that recently won George Clooney an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. (Yes, he's not the "star" in Syriana. Isn't that confusing?)

But confusion is not always a bad thing. And in Syriana, writer-director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) and actor-producer Clooney use it to their advantage, though it could be said that a little less of it would have sufficed.

To make matters more challenging, Syriana bounces about the globe like a Bond film, from Tehran to Washington to Geneva to Spain to Beirut, though at no point do we wash up on a beach inhabited by scantily clad spy girls with sexy monikers. No, Syriana is serious business, and all business. But not just oil business.

Syriana is also the story of Wasim Khan (Mazhar Munir) and his father (Shahid Ahmed), two Middle East oil-field workers who lose their jobs when the Chinese move in and take over a former Connex operation. And the story of an Iranian underworld figure (Kayvan Novak) who buys illegal arms from Barnes and sells them to parties with connections to Islamic fundamentalists who recruit -- who else -- laid-off oil-field workers. And the story of Mussawi (Mark Strong), a.k.a. Jimmy, a Beirut-based double or perhaps triple agent who could be on just about anyone's side at any particular moment.

You would hope all this weaving together of characters and storylines would have some sort of purpose, and it does. Gaghan succeeds, after the initial confusion, in creating a film that recreates the paranoia thrillers of the '70s -- Three Days of the Condor, perhaps, or The Parallax View -- well-made movies in which there's a lot at stake and it's next to impossible to decide whom to trust.

In one of the film's best scenes, Barnes sits down to eat lunch in a busy Beirut cafe. A minute later he looks up to find himself completely alone. It's obvious something is going to happen -- but what is it and who's behind it? He heads back to his hotel room, but the feeling follows him -- for the rest of the film.

In another, Danny Dalton (Tim Blake Nelson), a member of the suspiciously named Committee to Liberate Iran, takes Holiday to task for his investigation into the Connex-Killen deal.

"Corruption is our protection," Dalton tells him. "Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win."

Meanwhile, Connex exec Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) has his own take on corruption: "Dig 6 feet, find three bodies," he tells Holiday. "But dig 12 feet, you find 40." (Dalton and Pope are hunting buddies, by the way. Take that, Dick Cheney.)

Syriana is based on the book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. Just how much of the movie is fact and how much is fiction -- well, given both the CIA's and Hollywood's penchant for toying with the truth, that's impossible to say.

But there's no question it was framed to deliver a message. "When a country has 5 percent of the world's population but spends 50 percent of the world's military spending, that country's persuasive power is in decline," Nasir tells Woodman.

So there you have it. You get to gallivant all over the globe watching glamorous people do nasty things to make more money than you can shake a sheik at -- with wit, wisdom and weapons that blow things up real good. Now that's what I call a movie.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

4 August 2007

what's new