George Clooney is great in the new film, "Syriana." It's a low key geo-petro-political thriller which, if it were longer, might be better. (That's seldom the case with a motion picture.) "Syriana" is based on events in the life of Robert Baer (a real CIA operative) and his book, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA War on Terrorism. Stephen Gaghan, the 2000 Oscar-winning screenwriter of the smash drug cartel flick, "Traffic," wrote and directed "Syriana." There are no illicit drugs in Gaghan's latest effort. But there is plenty of petroleum, power, money and an even greater abundance of duplicity.
Clooney is a CIA agent who, unlike Valerie Plame, isn't worrying so much about being outed as trying to figure out why he's been so totally used by his colleagues at Langley for so long.
Matt Damon is a perky energy analyst; the father of young children with his lovely wife, played by Amanda Peet. The always "just right" Jeffrey Wright plays an uptight, buttoned-down "K" Street attorney. His job is to smooth the skids for the Feds to let two big Texas oil companies merge. Wright's classy, sinister boss is played to the nines by the polished veteran, Christopher Plummer. (I smell Best Supporting Actor here.)
Gaghan downloads more on his narrative with the plight of two Pakistani oil workers who lose their Texas-based jobs at a Middle East refinery due to the machinations of merger. They're played by Mazhar Munir and Shahid Ahmed. Munir is then recruited by an Islamic cleric for chores of a more explosive nature. Chris Cooper, as ubiquitous as Jude Law was last year, is well-cast as one of the oil company CEOs.
Yet another story layer pits two privileged young princes, (one idealistic, the other...well, not so idealistic) each against the other, as to whom their Emir daddy will give "all the gold to," so to speak. Nadim Sawalha plays the wheelchair-bound Emir. Alexander Siddig is the idealistic prince and Akbar Kurtha is the prince who "gets the gold."
Fleeting frames of William Hurt's cameo are seen as he, as another CIA operative, gives Clooney the skinny on what the hell's going on.
I wish Hurt could've been at our screening so he could've given us some idea of what the hell was going on, as well, since Stephen Gaghan seems disinclined to do so.
Wasting ink neither on exposition nor characterization, I guess Mr. Gaghan thinks we'll get it anyway, or that his script is so Right On we'll just accept it. The film is well enough constructed and brings forward such serious, compelling contemporary issues that another 15 or 20 minutes running time for deeper communication would have helped a lot.
Unsurprisingly, all the story threads---most of which are linked with a father-son backstory--- converge at the climax and downbeat denouement. How could "Syriana" end any other way?
The inclination is to go along with Gaghan's well-placed hypothesis that Middle East oil reserves, fundamentalist fanaticism, petro-capitalists and poverty are the primary causal elements for the 24/7 SNAFU in and around Iraq. But why mute the movie into an underplayed two hours and three minutes? And, why not allow for more information about the characters and their motivations? To repeat: more would be better in the case of "Syriana," which is a real think tank label for that conflicted region.
Besides the film's incendiary moments and the torture scene in which Clooney actually injured his spine, there is one striking speech of hyperbole. It comes from a Tulsa native: Tim Blake Nelson, who went to Holland Hall. As a fictional U.S. politician, Nelson, in a weak moment, blurts out that, "the only reason we win is because of corruption!"
"Syriana's" characters have all lost their souls: the good guys, the bad guys, the shades-of-gray guys. But despite the film's lack of clarity, it intellectually slogs on to be rational and chillingly honest.
Where is Howard Beale now that we really need him?
Opens 12/9 at the Cinemark Tulsa
Gary Chew can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2005, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.