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With: George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Damon, Alexander Siddig, Chris Cooper, Christopher Plummer, Amanda Peet, William Hurt, Kayvan Novak, Amr Waked, Robert Foxworth, Nicky Henson, Nicholas Art, Steven Hinkle, Daisy Torme, Peter Gerety, Richard Lintern
Written by: Stephen Gaghan, suggested by a book by Robert Baer
Directed by: Stephen Gaghan
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Running Time: 126
Date: 11/23/2005

Syriana (2005)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Stephen Gaghan's Syriana is an awards-season message in search of a movie. A discouraging damnation of big business oil and its influence on the CIA and on the politics of Arab nations, it's a message that's easy to agree with. But with his criss-crossing mish-mash of characters and complicated storylines, Gaghan turns in an editorial rather than any kind of visual art. Characters simply tell one another about their opinions while walking through office buildings or oil refineries or sitting in hotel rooms.

Gaghan had this same problem with his over-praised screenplay for Traffic (2000), a film that delivered another much-needed message (drugs are bad), but that short-changed its many characters by giving each of them too little screen time. In the case of Traffic, director Steven Soderbergh smoothed out some of the rough edges with his graceful, colorful direction, but Gaghan lacks the same talent, as evidenced by his forgotten directorial debut Abandon (2002).

However, Gaghan has an appreciation and skill with his actors so meticulous that it nearly covers up for the plot's gargantuan lumps. George Clooney leads the cast of Syriana as Bob Barnes, a burned out CIA agent who returns to Beirut and winds up being captured and tortured. Meanwhile, two Arabian princes wait for their ailing father to make one of them king. The good brother (Alexander Siddig) wishes to use his country's oil to reinvigorate its own economy and the bad brother (Akbar Kurtha) wishes to continue the existing deal, dependent upon -- and selling only to -- the United States.

Matt Damon plays an energy expert who sides with the good prince, and Chris Cooper plays an oil baron, involved with a giant merger, and they both have their wonderfully potent little moments.

More characters turn up, on and on, until Syriana barely makes sense anymore. Barnes is kidnapped and tortured in a gruesome scene, but why? Because he knows too much? Why does Jeffrey Wright's character -- some kind of spy -- have an alcoholic father who hangs around his house? Gaghan lacks the skill to know when to stop adding characters or when plot threads become ridiculous and useless.

That's not to say that Syriana is a complete failure. It has a pessimism and an intelligence rare in American movies that makes you want to root for it. Even if it does not know how to present them, it's a movie with ideas, and that's more than we usually get.

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