in Warner Bros. Pictures’ political thriller “Syriana,” also starring Jeffrey Wright.
Photo Credit: Glen Wilson. ©2005 Warner Bros. Ent. – All Rights Reserved

Sunrise on a desert. In the haze, there are throngs of migrant workers crowding around buses. The scene is emblematic of one of many central themes struggling to be heard in this movie. The very next scene takes us into a city—a party in stark contrast to what we’re used to seeing when the media feeds us imagery of the Middle East.

Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is asked by a friend, “Have you ever tried liquid MDMA?”

Barnes is a CIA agent who uses connections like this to aid in carrying out his mission—the execution of two arms dealers. He catches on that the buyer isn’t Iranian when he questions one of the men, “You don’t speak Farsi, do you, you son of a goat?” The Stinger missiles are hurried off into a back room, and Barnes has effectively blown his opportunity.

Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), head of the law firm Sloan Whiting, oversees a cadre of attorneys whose job is to protect corporate interests. “I have a company of sheep who think they’re lions.” His lion, in this case, is Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright)—assigned to ensure the merger of the Connex and Killen oil empires passes Congressional oversight.

Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is an energy analyst stationed in Iran. He’s tracking the progress of the Connex-Killen merger, of which it is said it would effectively form the world’s twenty-third largest economy. He is, by far, the most developed character in this movie. While he does have the makings of a Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage in “Lord of War“), the story doesn’t center on him. In fact, I’m not sure the film centers on any singular narrative. His wife, Julie (Amanda Peet) and his son Max (Steven Hinkle) exist almost exclusively as reminders that he is, more or less, like all movie salespeople—perfectly fine in the absence of conscience until things stop going his way. The psyche of salespeople is at least slightly more complicated than that.

Are analysts hired by oil companies to fabricate value where none inherently exists? Of course. Woodman even knows this is the function for which he is most suited… He even employs it as a selling point with Prince Nasir al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig), an English-educated heir to the Emir Hamed al-Subaai (Nadim Sawalha). But is this a novel concept? No, not really. This, unfortunately, is the only coherent point the film makes—which we already understand to be the case. There’s an internal power struggle as the aging Emir plans to relinquish control to one of his sons—the progressive yet patient Nasir or the younger, impatient and more unstable Prince Meshal (Akbar Kurtha). The irony is that the collected and mature Nasir implicates Western values for the decline in his society’s stability, yet the Westernized Meshal believes in more radical solutions.

There are several other subplots aimed at telling us how xenophobic the Arab world is. When an accident affects the Woodmans, they’re quick to imply that the Arab community is responsible for not caring. There are the contrasting shots of the wealthy shaikhs and the poor foreigners who must stand in line to get work. There’s a larger ancillary theme with several Pakistani youths who, disgruntled and out of work, turn to a charismatic young man, Mohammed Sheik Agiza (Amr Waked) who, gradually, begins to sound more and more like a militant fanatic.

Chris Cooper as Jimmy Pope plays an effective parody of a certain failure of a well-known oil magnate with a similar penchant for overwrought (read: phony) folksy-ness and a tendency to be deeply irritated when the wills of men cannot be wrangled by sheer force toward his personal advantage. However, his character, never completely fleshed out, is used in the story largely as a prop moved around the stage, so to speak, so the other characters, e.g. Whiting and Holiday, can interact with him in the course of steering the decidedly bogus Committee for the Liberation of Iran (not nearly as funny as the acronym formed by “Operation: Iraqi Liberation”—truth stranger than fiction), which is essentially a front for several oil interests (surprise!) who want to sink their claws into Iran’s petroleum reserves.

I found rather convoluted what appeared to be the intended central narrative, concerning Barnes, the CIA and the government’s support of the so-called Committee for the Liberation of Iran. Unless the point is that such plots are convoluted, but the advantage of making a movie is that the director has the opportunity to examine the plot from a different angle that helps the viewer make sense of what’s going on. 2004’s “Spartan” and 1998’s “Dark City” were like that. Both start out with apparently complex storylines that seem to make no sense at all, but the details have such a precise, logical progression that—upon recognizing that pattern—the story comes together before your very eyes. Here the story always seems to stay an arms length away from making sense—even to itself.

I’m not saying it’s a terrible film… it’s just very contorted and tries to thrust several large ideas toward us, each of which deserves its own movie. The scenes aren’t hard to follow individually, but they don’t coalesce quite well. In the very taut, lean “Good Night, and Good Luck,” George Clooney proved himself a far better writer and director than this film’s Stephen Gaghan. Clooney centered on one story—Murrow’s relentless pursuit Sen. Joseph McCarthy after the Radulovich investigation. This movie keeps picking up and abandoning unrealized subplots along the way, such as the disintegrating relationship between Barnes and his son, Robbie (Max Minghella). Barnes and his wife (who appears absolutely nowhere in this movie) haven’t been honest with Robbie about their occupations. Young and more intelligent than his father recognizes, Robbie observes, “Both of my parents are professional liars.” His mother apparently has a day job as the Invisible Woman.

On the one hand, the film wants to criticize Islamic culture. On the other hand, it want’s to criticize American assimilation of Islamic culture into our economic paradigm. And on yet the left foot, the movie forces you to consider the implications of terrorism: What exactly are they so pissed off about? Does the film argue for terrorism? No. We’ve heard, ad nauseum, the refrain that terrorists despise and, therefore, wish to destroy our culture, but this film seems to argue, interestingly, that they despise their own culture for embracing Western materialism. So acts of militancy, as the film suggests, are not an attempt to destroy our culture, but rather a repudiation by radical factions of the way in which we are destroying theirs.

As some of the young, disenfranchised recruits of Agiza are playing around high-tension powerlines, one of the young men imparts this nugget of wisdom: “If man is made in god’s image, then god is deeply messed up.”

Syriana • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Running Time: 126 minutes • MPAA Rating: R for violence and language. • Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

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