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Photograph by Sidney Baldwin

No Scotch for Oil: George Clooney and William Hurt take a sip of the future in 'Syriana.'

Oil Slick

Politics and oil muddy the waters in confusing international thriller 'Syriana'

By Richard von Busack

GIVE Syriana its due. A film that likens a Muslim suicide bombing to a clandestine missile attack is risky enough. And these days, a film that mentions the difference between the Farsi and Arabic languages practically deserves a special Oscar for multicultural sensitivity. That Syriana, trips up doesn't detract from the boldness of the approach.

Syriana's title isn't explained. Then again, the whole movie needs to be explained. A page-long communiqué ought to be handed out with every ticket. The title seems to refer to a proposed Persian Gulf empire that would be called Syriana: a pipe dream of the expansion of W's War.

Yet Syriana has nothing to do with Iraq today. The film is about peacetime skullduggery. A group called the Committee to Liberate Iran is convincing itself that Iran is ready to cast off its mullahs. If it does, the country can open its borders to the up-and-coming Kazakhstan pipeline. Matt Damon's Bryan Woodman, a well-off oil industry analyst, sees the pipeline coming and is ready for his share of the wealth.

Yet except for one short scene in Tehran, Syriana is really about an unnamed Persian Gulf emirate. As the old emir's health fails, an oil conglomerate, the CIA and Woodman consider the possibilities.

Meanwhile, a Pakistani guest worker in the emirate, Wasim (Mazhar Munir)—poor, beaten and stashed in boxcars with dozens of his fellows—is lured into a fundamentalist madrassah-cum-terrorist cell. And a CIA hit man named Bob Barnes (George Clooney) gets mixed into a plot involving a stolen United States missile.

Clooney is, as always, absolutely compelling, here, beefed and bearded and bearing the poisoned bearlike gravity of Raymond Burr. When Clooney is skulking around, Syriana has the rhythms of a spy film, befitting the compass-spinning locations from Beirut to Washington, D.C., to Switzerland. (The tycoon in charge of the oil company Connex is named "Leland Janus," an Ian Fleming name if there ever was one. )

Barnes is a CIA version of Willy Loman; he has an ungrateful-bastard Princetonian son (Max Minghella) and a similarly ungrateful government that doesn't have any kind words for Barnes even after he gets a torture-chamber manicure.

Syriana is most shrewd when Barnes meets with a member of the executive branch (think Condoleezza). She demands an upbeat forecast about the progress of democracy in Iran. Barnes tells the truth—he doesn't know. He isn't one of those policy wonks, as slick as a ribbon, who were so certain we would be drinking cafe lattes today in Baghdad's newly dedicated Donald Rumsfeld Square.

Even for a film with at least five narrative threads, Syriana is packed with extraneous details. Gaghan doesn't have a serious command of cinematic shorthand. These plotlets don't really add up to a plot. And having so many pieces on the board, Gaghan loses track. Who does Jeffrey Wright's Bennett Holiday work for again? He toils at what Syriana's notes call "a white-shoe law firm" (and that is, exactly, what?).

With so many players, caricatures emerge. We know that Chris Cooper's oilman is ruthless because he hunts wild animals at a Texas game park; we know that Christopher Plummer is evil because he clips rosebuds from a bush; we know that Tim Blake Nelson gives a speech about the necessity of corruption not because it advances the plot but because it was too show-stopping to leave out.

All the way through, there are moments of nuggetized information not connected to the whole. Woodman's abstracted phone call home, describing his Arabian luxury hotel room, resembles a first-rate TV commercial. Gaghan is not an expert at cinematic transitions, although there is a slick matching shot that goes from Barnes being strapped up with duct tape by Muslim extremists to a loading dock where boxes are being packed and shrink-wrapped.

Syriana presents a whirl of information—like a John le Carré novel in the Cuisinart—and eventually, baffled viewers lie back and look for familiar faces. The attempt to make a film so dedicated to ideas recalls S.J. Perelman's sarcastic comment: "In my experience, the public is sick and tired of watching actors hugging and kissing. What's they're hungry for is motifs."

Unfortunately, Gaghan's wheel-spinning ends in a feeling of impotence. Syriana seems to be counseling a cynical resignation to the way the system works. (Even Traffic didn't seem so woeful; it was only taking up a national burden, not a worldwide one.) The attempt to finish on a slight upbeat note is hopeless. Syriana is too well bred to show you a tanker exploding (and that would be rather a big explosion). But it's not too well bred to imply—simply through a succession of images—that all the action takes place just so that Damon's character can learn the importance of being nice to his wife. She, the only woman of consequence in Syriana, is played by Amanda Peet, and she's wretched here.

Watching Syriana, I wished that someone could inject this floppy film with that potion that the Hogwarts' School nurses use to regrow bones. If only all this tasty meat had a skeleton to hang on.

Syriana (R; 126 min.), directed and written by Stephen Gaghan, photographed by Robert Elswit and starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the December 7-13, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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