Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005


Directed by Stephen Gaghan
Based on the book by Robert Baer
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper and Mazhar Munir
Playing at Angelika Film Center
18 West Houston Street
(212-995-2000; angelikafilmcenter.com)

Courtesy of Warner Brothers
George Clooney plays a shrewd CIA operative in Stephen Gagan’s new political thriller, “Syriana.”

The high price of ‘Syriana’ crude

By Leonard Quart

Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for the multi-narrative drug trade expose, “Traffic,” takes on the global oil industry in his new political thriller, “Syriana.” Like John Frankenheimer’s “Manchurian Candidate,” Alan Pakula’s “Parallax View,” and, most recently, Fernando Meirelles’ “The Constant Gardener,” it generally succeeds in making strong political points while providing the pleasure of pulsating suspense and action. Unlike these films, however, its multiple story lines are a bit too convoluted to make complete sense of in one screening. Still, this is a politically provocative, exhilaratingly edited film about the moral rot at the center of American power.

Though the thriller as a genre is more interested in rapid plot twists than in nuanced character development, “Syriana” does contain an understated, striking performance by George Clooney (the film’s executive producer) who plays a bearded, overweight CIA agent (Robert Barnes). It’s Barnes who is the prime figure in the film’s central plot, which involves the United States government trying to insure that the oil companies maintain their concession in a Persian Gulf shiekdom. A shrewd and skilled operative, he’s been used and emotionally depleted in the struggle against Middle East arms dealers and terrorists. It’s only after the agency hangs him out to dry that he finds within himself a remnant of decency, and turns against the people he has served so dutifully.

For the most part, however, the film is filled with bad guys who have few redeeming qualities. They range from aristocratic, amoral lawyers to strident, profit-driven oilmen, to Gulf state monarchs who care only about their sybaritic lifestyle, and finally, to CIA bureaucrats devoid of any semblance of humanity. Even its more sympathetic figures, like Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a quietly observant Washington lawyer, aren’t without their faults. To serve his firm and cement an oil merger, Bennett is willing to perform due diligence, which in this case means providing the Justice Department with a scapegoat or two to make certain the deal goes through and his career gets a boost.

“Syriana” also provides a sharply etched portrait of the immigrants who work the oil fields and live in cramped hostels. Wasim (Mazhar Munir) is a young, delicate Pakistani laborer who loses his job, and then in quick succession becomes a Muslim extremist and suicide bomber after he attends a local madrassa. His transformation, and the image of the imam lecturing students may be too schematic, but it’s a clear illustration of how Islamic fundamentalism can be seductive to people with little hope.

Political thrillers tend to go in for conspiracies, and there is something too neat about a world where a nefarious collusion between oil companies, lawyers, politicians and Middle East monarchs controls the global oil supply. But even if “Syriana” makes the truth a bit simpler and less ambiguous than it is, the general thrust of its attack feels powerfully on target. Gaghan and Clooney have created what the best political thrillers hope to achieve: a politically resonant and uncompromising work that will reach general audiences because of its star power and cinematic energy.

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