Fiercely partisan political thrillers have generally been the province of great incendiary European directors like Costa-Gavras ("Z") and Gillo Pontecorvo ("Battle of Algiers"). In America, more often than not we get the fever dreams of Oliver Stone.
Usually, however, the field lies fallow. During Vietnam and for an unconscionably long time afterward, Hollywood did nothing to confront explicitly the agonizing issues of that war. The current situation in Iraq and the Middle East has so far been dealt with mostly in the bullheaded Michael Moore manner. Hollywood has yet to dive into the turmoil and surface with something that survives as more than just agitprop politicking.
A lot of people have held out high hopes for "Syriana," a vast mosaic of a movie about Big Oil written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Traffic." Its star and coexecutive producer, George Clooney, has been tantalizingly forthright: " 'Syriana' ... opens discussions about corruption, about the effectiveness of the CIA, about any number of things," he said in studio press notes. "You want people to be standing around the water cooler the next day talking about it saying, 'Here's what I agree with' or 'Here's where they're wrong.' "
But the discussion most people will likely be having is more along the lines of: "Could you figure out what was going on?" With its multiple crisscrossing plots, "Syriana" falls down at the most basic storytelling level, and this incoherence damages even the good parts. I'm not saying that Gaghan should have tied everything up into a neat little bundle - that would be ludicrous when dramatizing a situation as volatile as the current one in the Middle East.
But the confusions in this movie should not be mistaken for the passionate chaos of creativity. Bad exposition is more like it.
Even when it's clear what is going on, "Syriana" doesn't exactly rip the lid off high-level criminality in our time. Gaghan has his Oliver Stone side: His clarion call is issued with a bullhorn. Is it really breaking news that corporations - of whatever stripe - are fiercely, even lethally, competitive? There is even the obligatory greed-is-good speech, delivered here as a litany by a Texas oilman (Tim Blake Nelson) facing prosecution: "Corruption is our protection.... Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why we win."
Gaghan comes on like a heavyweight, but he's wearing kid gloves. In this movie, where so much is at stake in the Middle East, Israel goes virtually unmentioned. Gaghan doesn't go after any real-life Washington muckety-mucks; his condemnations are comfortably generic.
The central story line in "Syriana" involves the prospective merger of two American oil companies against the backdrop of a reformist Persian Gulf prince (the hyper-elegant Alexander Siddig) who has sold drilling rights to the Chinese. Clooney's Bob Barnes is the veteran CIA operative who, in his final undercover mission, is sent to assassinate him. Matt Damon is the Geneva-based energy analyst who cozies up to the prince. Jeffrey Wright plays an attorney finessing the oil company merger for a big-ticket Washington law firm with deep ties to Big Oil. (The firm is headed by Christopher Plummer at his most imperially smarmy.) As a sideshow, a Pakistani father (Shahid Ahmed) and son (Mazhar Munir) working the prince's oil fields are laid off because of the China deal, pushing the son into terrorism.
Any of these story lines could have been expanded into a single worthy movie. (And judging from the disjointedness of the narrative, probably a lot of filmed material was left out). But what we are left with are, at best, tantalizing shards.
The most glittering of these shards is the Bob Barnes subplot. The spy who is left out in the cold is by now a stock figure, but Clooney invests him with a rugged poignancy. Barnes is a late-blooming do-gooder in a bad world, and he pays the price for it. When he is cut off, so is the movie. Grade: B-
• Rated R for violence and language.