Swaddled in 30 extra pounds and a thick gray beard, George Clooney moves through his portion of "Syriana" with furrowed brow and a slow, careful gait. His character, Bob Barnes, is a not-unfamiliar type in the world of movie espionage: the weary, cynical C.I.A. operative on the brink of an attack of conscience. Bob, who has spent his career in cheerful spots like Beirut and Tehran, is the kind of guy who knows a lot more than he says, and who speaks in a low monotone, evading more questions than he answers. When pressed for information - by an aggressive government bureaucrat or by his impatient teenage son (Max Minghella) - his default response seems to be, "It's complicated." Quite so.
Buy this and other posters from MovieGoods.com®
"Syriana," written and directed by Stephen Gaghan (who also wrote "Traffic," its obvious precursor), is a movie that demands and rewards close attention. Loosely based on the memoirs of a C.I.A. veteran, Robert Baer, on whom Mr. Clooney's character is modeled, it aims to be a great deal more than a standard geopolitical thriller and thereby succeeds in being one of the best geopolitical thrillers in a very long time. Along with Mr. Baer's book "See No Evil," it assimilates a whole shelf of post-9/11 nonfiction and journalism, spinning a complex, intriguing narrative about oil, terrorism, money and power. Parsing its details requires a good deal of concentration: important information is conveyed through whispered conversations and sidelong glances, and you may sometimes wish for a chart diagraming all the patterns of influence, connection and coincidence. But the mental labor of figuring out just what is going on is part of what makes the film such a rich and entertaining experience.
Buy these and other still photos from MovieGoods.com®
And its sheer entertainment value - the way that Mr. Gaghan, with remarkable conviction and confidence, both honors and scrambles the conventions of the genre - is worth emphasizing. Since it deals with some contentious contemporary realities, it is likely to be greeted with a fair amount of chin-rubbing commentary. Though "Syriana" is expressly a work of fiction, it will no doubt be subjected to a round of pseudo-fact-checking, and its dark, conspiratorial view of the present and recent past is likely to be challenged, either because it is too complicated or not complicated enough.
There are four main storylines, linked by the anxious, irregular heartbeat of Alexandre Desplat's score - each one subject to enough twists and reversals to make plot summary a treacherous exercise. While Bob is sorting out his midcareer issues - his bosses, concerned about his maverick tendencies, appear to want either to confine him to a desk job or send him off to be killed somewhere - some members of the younger generation are finding troubles and opportunities of their own. Bennet Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is a rising lawyer at a Washington firm who is called upon to run due diligence in advance of a merger between two energy companies. Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), a financial analyst living with his family in expatriate luxury in Geneva, becomes the financial adviser to Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), who is eager to succeed his father as ruler of an oil-rich emirate and inaugurate a program of political and economic modernization. In Prince Nasir's country, meanwhile, a young Pakistani laborer named Wasim (Mazhar Munir) succumbs to the lure of radical Islam, seeking refuge from the dusty oil fields and crowded hostels in the tranquillity of a madrasa.
These five characters - Bob, Wasim, Prince Nasir, Bennett and Bryan - add up to a sort of composite hero, though their heroism, collective and individual, is highly ambiguous. Not one of them is in possession of a clear conscience or a singular motive, and not one of them fully claims the audience's sympathy. Greed and ambition sometimes coincide with idealism, and self-interest shades into scruple. Each of the five is afflicted by family problems - the mutual disappointments of fathers and sons is the film's principal psychological motif - and throws himself into the world of money, politics and power as a way to escape or salve his private unhappiness.
*Reviewed by — A. O. Scott, The New York Times
Can't think of what to get someone? Get a gift certificate from MovieGoods.com®
* Reviews posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wizard of 'OZ'
* Reviewers do not necessarily endorse MovieGoods.com®