It's our world and welcome to it

| December 14, 2005
My country, 'tis of thee: George
    Clooney in "Syriana."
My country, 'tis of thee: George Clooney in "Syriana."
- Warner Bros.

Although it presents a most convincing picture of current conditions in the Middle East, the political thriller Syriana may disappoint opponents of the Bush administration by its deliberate omission of any reference to particular people or political parties.

At the same time, the movie shows the familiar faces of those in power, the corporate and governmental manipulators who collude in the complicated business of pumping, transporting, refining, and selling oil, the lifeblood of the contemporary world, the source of a good deal of contemporary pain.

The director, Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay for Traffic, employs some of that movie's methods to examine an industry that despite its ostensible legality seems as lawless and violent as the drug trade. The film's plot proceeds through a long series of brief scenes and sequences, jumping rapidly from various places in the Middle East to lush homes in Europe to corporate board rooms and numerous government offices in America. That rapid movement also involves a large cast of characters, from poor Arabs to fabulously wealthy oil executives to federal bureaucrats to CIA agents.

The unusual combination of scores of short scenes, the quick cutting within those scenes, the rapid jumps connecting them, and the frequent changes of location infuse the film with considerable energy, as well as a paradoxically epic amplitude. Among its many people united by their involvement with oil, the picture concentrates mostly on Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a CIA agent, Bennett Holliday (Jeffrey Wright), a smooth corporate lawyer, and Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a financial consultant based in Switzerland. More disturbing, it also shows the lives of the people at the highest and lowest levels of the business, the greedy corporate scoundrels who reap the profits and the power, and the impoverished Arab workers whose suffering at the hands of the bosses forges their only weapon, the suicide bomb.

The movie begins and ends with devastating explosions, the violent punctuation of daily life in many areas of the Middle East, enclosing the corporate and governmental wheeling and dealing that provides much of the actual subject. Two great oil companies merge; the Department of Justice investigates their malfeasance in the transaction; the emir of an Arab country plays the Chinese and the Americans off against each other for his own profit; the CIA assassinates his son, a progressive prince who wants to improve his country with the oil money; and two young Arabs, fired because of the merger, dedicate themselves to the sacred task of blowing themselves up along with their oppressors --- it's our world and welcome to it.

In some senses the picture's movement through time and space obscures and confuses both its people and its meaning. The director apparently enjoys an oblique method of characterization, neglecting connections, interrupting the flow of narrative to introduce people in the middle of their lives, so to speak, and ignoring anything like orthodox exposition. His short, punchy, constantly changing scenes often show people alluding opaquely in their own peculiar idiom to matters that never become fully clear; the technique appears intentional, as if the confusion itself constituted some of the subject and theme.

Another, less acceptable result of Syriana's special methods involves the people themselves. Although in one oddly dull and downbeat scene Clooney talks to his college-age son about his inability to afford Princeton, a couple of others suggest the stonefaced Jeffrey Wright's estrangement from his alcoholic father, and a few more show a tragedy and its aftermath in Matt Damon's family, none of the characters really emerges clearly or develops beyond an initial appearance. They remain pretty much the same from beginning to end, and their appearance among a crowded cast makes it difficult to tell the players without a scorecard.

Despite the steadfast avoidance of connecting its characters with real life, most of the people in the movie will remind any viewer of some identifiable faces constantly in the news, from Ken Lay to Condoleezza Rice to the late Dick Cheney and even George W. Bush. An excruciating torture scene reminds us of just how far the nation has traveled in its betrayal of its history, and a character's paean to corruption suggests the new values of a terrible time, the state of the nation, the way we live now.

Syriana (R), written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, is playing at

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