Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, and Christopher Plummer. In English, Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu with English subtitles. Rated 14A.
Syriana can be accused of a lot of things, but lack of ambition isn't one of them. Sprawling over multiple time zones and across divisions of race, religion, and class, the film sets out to apply Traffic's Latin American drug-mosaic approach to the petroleum jones of the Middle East. And it almost succeeds.
Written and directed by Traffic scripter Stephen Gaghan, the new film weaves together threads connecting Texas oil barons, rogue spies, Swiss financial consultants, beyond-rich Arab princes, Pakistani day labourers, Islamic Jihadists, Chinese businessmen, and Washington lawyers. There are a couple of Mexican cooks in there, too, just for old-times' sake.
If the story can be said to have a main player, that might be George Clooney's ambiguous, bearlike Bob, a CIA agent who's been out in the sun too long. Bob specializes in delivering nasty weapons to the right factions in Lebanon, Iran, and other supposedly non-war-torn places. When he sees a rocket launcher going to the wrong customer, he thinks maybe things are spinning out of control.
The launcher will play a role in the internecine struggles of an unnamed Arab emirate. It's a place where the old king (Nadim Sawalha) would rather retire and leave his sons-a steely-eyed progressive (Alexander Siddig) and his hedonistic, malleable brother (Akbar Kurtha)-to duke it out for power. Guess which one Washington prefers? Also in the mix is a Geneva-based financial analyst (an impressively controlled Matt Damon) trying to ingratiate himself with the royal family, the analyst's worried wife (Amanda Peet, in an underdeveloped role), and a poor Pakistani (Mazhar Munir) quasi-slaving in one of the emir's oil fields and ripe for another kind of exploitation.
Meanwhile, back in "civilization", an old oil man/diplomat (Christopher Plummer), in the vein of Reagan fixer James Baker, is having his own struggle with a company run by an upstart Texan (Chris Cooper). At the same time, a cool-tempered lawyer (Jeffrey Wright), the only man of colour among these power grabbers, scuttles between the two companies and the Justice Department, quietly gathering information-but to what end?
The filmmakers have given the lawyer, and the movie, one too many subplots in the form of an alcoholic, formerly estranged father (William C. Mitchell) who has come to perch uneasily in the lawyer's Georgetown condo. It's not at all clear where the old guy is supposed to sit in the near-Shakespearean swirl of bad happenings, except to show that everyone is hooked on something-and to counterbalance all the expository dialogue with something unexplained. Syriana is very smart and no doubt very important, but parts of it are even more needlessly complicated than real life.