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The Peace Breakers

Overall Punch Muted By Too Many Dangling Ideas In Blood-For-Oil Tapestry

MUDDLE EAST: (from left) Matt Damon and Alexander Siddig try to figure out what's going on in Syriana.

By Ian Grey | Posted 12/7/2005

Syriana has common sense on its side with its basic thesis stating that if you want to keep consuming petroleum products like there’s no tomorrow then you’re going to have to get used to pan-national corruption, designed poverty, terror-cell spawning, and doomed-to-failure empire gambits. And while writer/director Stephen Gaghan (screenwriter of 2000’s Traffic) is to be commended for attempting to upgrade somewhat the petro-politics discourse from the Bush administration’s obfuscation plan, his movie isn’t very good.

In trying to be an introductory lesson in petroleum greed, a ’70s-style thriller, an astringent character study, a primer on terrorism, and a Middle East miseries, Syriana offers too much information—and often is as glib as it is incomprehensible. You’ll find the occasional immaculate situation overview and smartly weary insight, but the movie would have packed twice the punch if about three characters and as many subplots were excised. As is, it suffers from the odd problem of being—at longer than two hours—too short for any lasting impact.

Like Traffic, Syriana—reputedly think-tank speak for a U.S.-influenced reshaping of the Middle East—is a mosaic of thematically interlocking plot lines building up to a big traumatic event: here, parallel CIA and terrorist attacks. (Remember that part about the movie being glib?)

The participants in Gaghan’s oil wars are players, cynics, or suckers. The duped one is Bob Barnes (George Clooney, portly and bearded), a career CIA agent who believes that he’s doing good works. When a fateful rocket-launcher sale in Tehran goes haywire, Bob tries to find out why, ends up tortured for his troubles, and is blacklisted by the FBI.

Less doomed by good intentions is Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an energy analyst trying to broker a deal with charismatic Prince Nashir (Alexander Siddig), the possible next-in-line emir of an unspecified Persian Gulf nation. (Suffice to say, Nashir’s commitment to democracy and literal free trade doesn’t sit well with the movie’s unspecified U.S. administration.)

The event gluing everyone together is the merger between a smallish Texas oil company run by good ol’ boy Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) and an energy megacorporation trying to get an exclusive on Kazakhstan’s oil reserves. The merger is being squired by Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), an up-and-coming lawyer at a firm run by reptilian powerbroker Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer).

Confused yet? Too bad—there’s more. Like Bryan and his wife, Julie (Amanda Peet), who suffer the loss of a son, Bennett is allowed one nonpolitical problem/relationship, is his case a strained relationship with his father (William C. Mitchell). Bob, meanwhile, gets to deal with an understandably alienated teen son, Robby (Max Minghella). (In the movie’s sole proscenium-breaking aside, Robby asks what his mother is up to, to which his secret-agent father replies, “She’s just a secretary.” Nudge-nudge, Plame-wink.)

While adding a slight, if tediously rote, human element to the proceedings, these relationships further crowd 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 crap wages and fired without notice or support. The result? Several become enmeshed, for lack of better options, with a radical Islamic terrorist cell.

All the aforementioned is supposedly “inspired by” a memoir by ex-CIA spook Robert Baer, lending credence to the theory that “inspired by” movies tend to be ponderous, disingenuously authoritative, pretentious, or, in Syriana’s case, variations of all three."

Syriana does contain some crisp filmmaking, minus the tacky color-coding and ultra-telegraphing that marred Gaghan’s Traffic collaboration with Steven Soderbergh. And there’s no denying the emotional wallop of the finale’s crescendo of horrific consequences. But with few time-outs to grok the movie’s ceaseless data gush, you’re too busy trying to recall who is trying to screw whom for which corrupt reason in which Iraqi/Saudi Arabian nation to get involved in the scant human drama.

Still, Syriana includes some perversely fun, piercingly over-the-top bits. Tim Blake Nelson’s crazed Grover Norquist-ian deregulation advocate updates Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” by shouting such nuggets as “Corruption is government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation!” and “Corruption is our protection!” Syriana concludes with a jittery intensity—even if you have no idea what it’s about—and leaves you feeling disgusted at being of the same species as its characters and helplessly depressed. The disgusted part is fine—the helpless, not so much.

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