(director/writer: Stephen Gaghan; screenwriter: from the book by Robert Baer “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism”; cinematographer: Robert Elswit; editor: Tim Squyres; music: Alexandre Desplat; cast: George Clooney (Bob Barnes), Matt Damon (Bryan Woodman), Jeffrey Wright (Bennett Holiday), Chris Cooper (Jimmy Pope), William Hurt (Stan), Mazhar Munir (Wasim Khan), Tim Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton), Amanda Peet (Julie Woodman), Christopher Plummer (Dean Whiting), Peter Gerety (Leland Janus), Tom McCarthy (Fred Franks), Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir Al-Subaai), Akbar Kurtha (Prince Meshal Al-Subaai), Robert Foxworth (Tommy Thompson), Sonnell Dadral (Farooq), Mark Strong (Mussawi); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jennifer Fox/Georgia Kacandes/Michael Nozik; Warner Bros. Pictures; 2005-in English, Arabic, Farsi)

“One of the year’s more compelling and better films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In 1999 Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for his Traffic screenplay. In this complicated political thriller Gaghan gets the chance to also direct for the first time. Syriana is a geopolitical thriller about oil and is based on the book See No Evil by Robert Baer, a former CIA agent in the Middle East. It’s overloaded with info you probably don’t get in such full detail in history class, on cable news or in the newspapers. The labyrinthine parallel plots are filmed in the similar unwieldy way executive producer Steven Soderbergh did it in Traffic–a film about international drug dealers. Some of the many themes involve personal tragedy, oily lawyers, oil industry corruption and political manipulation, missing missiles, competition with China, C.I.A intrigue, Washington coverups, spies, Hezbollah as a political power in the region, feuding Persian Gulf emirs, greedy Texas oil men, and Middle East unemployment and terrorism. That’s a lot of plot to put on the plate and it also has too many characters to keep track of and allow us to see what makes them tick, as this overly ambitious film (probably more suited for a documentary) heads down a fuzzy path. Nevertheless, despite its obvious flaws in filmmaking, this is one powerful political narrative that adds up to making it one of the year’s more compelling and better films but not one that will comfort a mainstream audience or is it geared for the Oscars.

The catchy title is derived from think tank talk, whereas the political analysts hypothetically reshape the countries throughout the oil regions of the world to favor American business and national interests and make up fictional countries that might soon become reality, with Syriana being one such generic name (the business of America revolves around making sure it gets supplied with oil no matter what, and it should be noted that 70% of the oil reserves are held by Saudia Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Libya–all fundamentalist Islamic leaning countries with a hostility to America). The oil men are implicated by Gaghan as providing for the American government’s failed foreign policy as their aims are intertwined with patriotism, the public’s interest, and that deregulation is rationalized as the American way to make a fast buck even if it involves the dirty business of corruption and secretive assassinations. This might be a bitter pill for oil men Bush and Cheney to swallow, but this intelligent film is filled with engrossing scenarios that smack of real-life experiences that indicate there might be a lot of hidden things uncovered in its messy search for the truth about the oil industry–a truth that does not reveal one single character we can sympathize with.

It’s beautifully shot in various locations around the globe that include:Los Angeles, New York, London, Cairo, Beirut, Bahrain, Dubai, Kuwait, and Damascus.

The stellar ensemble cast do wonders with this smart thriller, that expects the viewer to already know a lot about the recent events in the Middle East and refuses to dumb down the story to explain things to those who don’t read beyond the sports pages or the latest grizzly murder. A paunchy, bearded George Clooney plays the shadowy C.I.A operative Bob Barnes who seems trapped by the big oil players and left out in the cold by his C.I.A cronies or is possibly a rogue agent; Matt Damon plays Bryan Woodmanis a family man living in Geneva, where he’s an idealistic energy analyst for a high-powered firm and when his young son accidentally drowns guiltily cashes in on the family tragedy with a 75 million dollar business deal with star-crossed reform-minded Persian Gulf prince (Alexander Siddig) who turned down a bid from Connex to award natural gas drilling rights to the high bidder China; Jeffrey Wright plays Bennett Holiday the meek but slick D.C. lawyer who manipulates for an ethically questionable merger involving the giant Texas oil company Connex with the small wildcat company Killen run by the aggressive Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper), which has mysteriously landed the drilling rights to Kazakhstan. From this scenario just about everything is thrown into the mix, from laid off Pakistani oil field worker Wasim (Mazhar Munir) recruited to be a terrorist by a radical fundamentalist Islamic cleric to insider D. C. lawyer and big-time player in the oil marketplace Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), whose law firm he heads is in charge of making sure the oil merger goes through no matter how rough they have to play–he’s also an advocate for the CLI (Committee to Liberate Iran), a lobbyist group aiming to free Iran and get their foot in the door of their oil reserves.

When everything clears away and we can stop scratching our head, it seems Gaghan is saying there’s something wrong with the way we do business as usual in the Middle East–it’s not only secretive and unethical and a wrong-headed foreign policy is handed down from one administration to the other, but we are in danger of going down as a country if we continue to rely on this volatile area to supply our energy needs. I doubt if there’s anyone in Washington listening too closely, as too many of those smart-asses seem to be on the gravy train and it’s not going to be easy to get them off. But, at least, this film makes a serious effort to give us an idea of what’s going down and lays on us its own moral compass; it’s only too bad the characters couldn’t have been better defined to make the film more lucid.