The politics of oil never catches fire in `Syriana'

Clooney and Damon star in political thriller

Review C+

December 09, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Named after a think-tank term for a reconstituted Middle East, Syriana is an exercise in futility posing as a modernistic thriller. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan jams a diverse group of players inside a jagged-edged, radical-chic plot. George Clooney is an out-of-favor CIA agent, Matt Damon an international-finance whiz grieving for his son, and Jeffrey Wright a Washington lawyer ordered by his boss (Christopher Plummer) to vet an oil merger - but also to make sure he paints a good face on it. Along with a subplot about impoverished Muslim oil workers recruited for suicide bombing, these characters and their storylines merge into a picture of a political-industrial complex on the brink of self-destruction. It's still insidious and powerful enough to corrupt anyone with the smallest stake in it.

The movie comes together like a nihilistic jigsaw puzzle - with a few pieces removed for that special, indefinable dash of pseudo-density. The analysis here is both radical and not as difficult as Gaghan wants us to think. The U.S. hunger for Mideast oil wreaks havoc on its spoken commitment to liberty and opportunity. This ever-increasing fuel-dependency skews the CIA to target anyone who threatens the status quo. And, within the Beltway, our oil addiction reduces government checks and balances to a method of preserving U.S. trade dominance.

The formidable cast includes Alexander Siddig as a progressive Arab prince who employs Damon and tries to follow his program for social-economic reform (Damon's family loss has made him daring), and Chris Cooper as an oil magnate involved in the merger that Wright is both investigating and rubber-stamping. All the actors pour their evocative powers into roles that too often fit like straitjackets. The action includes executions, torture and an accidental death by drowning. Gaghan deliberately makes none of it thrilling or pretty. But Gaghan has no Goya-like gift for violence. His depictions of violence don't even express his disgust. They merely brutalize his antiheroes and the audience.

The actors deserve civic accolades, if not acting awards, simply for lending credence to "human" relationships that add the flimsiest veneer of complication to their characters. Forget the 30 pounds he put on to play a burnt-out case: Clooney has heartbreaking doubt and hurt in his eyes as a father whose agency business has insulated him from his family and who now can't communicate with his college-age son. Damon's clipped, caffeinated delivery cogently expresses his inability to contain his grief for his dead son; too bad he's more credible as a white-collar creature than as a husband who doesn't notice the escalating distance from his wife, the lovely Amanda Peet.

Wright's relationship with an alcoholic father is impossibly terse - I Never Sang for My Father done in semaphores and shorthand. It's meant to suggest that even a character as grasping as Wright's upwardly mobile African-American attorney won't cut himself off completely from his past. But the alcoholic dad is such a stick figure that you wonder what gives him the right to condemn his son. Luckily, Wright delivers the sort of implosive performance that suggests untapped mysteries. When his plot finally thickens and coheres, Wright keeps you guessing about how deeply the lawyer will commit to a dirty system - and how he'll go about doing it.

Unfortunately, Wright's the only one to offer any surprises. The movie gears you to expect the worst, and then delivers it. The movie's social commitment and the shred of artistic daring in its fragmented narrative have made it near-impossible to criticize. But it doesn't open hearts and minds: It closes them.

Gaghan and Clooney (who also executive-produced) have generated a lot of publicity from the way they feel this movie draws on the tradition of American political thrillers from the '70s. But the men who made the best political thrillers in the '70s were Europeans like Costa-Gavras (The Confession, State of Siege) and Francesco Rosi (The Mattei Affair). They didn't try to disguise their political allegiances. And they used masterly mosaic styles to clarify their subject matter, not conjure up a fake aura of profundity. In Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney showed that as a producer-writer-director he can be anguished and energizing. In Syriana, he and the rest of the cast put themselves at the service of their writer-director - and Gaghan's self-seriousness nearly nullifies them. Syriana may come on strong, but by the end it's a sheep in wolf's clothing.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Syriana (Warner Bros.) Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright. Directed by Stephen Gaghan. Rated R. Running time 126 minutes.

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