Liberty and Justice For Oil

Warner Bros./

George Clooney in Syriana.

Columbus Alive | December 8, 2005
We may be familiar with the corporate and government forces in the driver's seat, but the route through which the liquefied bones of dinosaurs end up in the tanks of our cars is for most a big, intimidating mystery. After writing a dramatic expose of the similarly expansive, treacherous and convoluted flow of the international drug trade, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, Stephen Gaghan has turned his attention toward the oil industry, both writing and directing a view of it from the perspectives of numerous personalities involved from bottom to top.

Based on the memoir by former CIA agent Robert Baer and Gaghan's own experiences traveling at Baer's side, Syriana kicks off with Baer's alter-ego, Bob Barnes, fleshed out by George Clooney with a scraggly beard and about 30 extra pounds, and one of the several nasty things he's asked to do for his country in the course of the film.

Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) is a Geneva-based energy analyst who seeks a partnership with Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), the reform-minded heir to the throne of a fictional Middle Eastern nation, and who isn't above taking advantage of the accidental death of his son at the prince's home for it, to the horror of his wife (Amanda Peet).

Jeffrey Wright is Bennett Holiday, a lawyer involved in a huge merger between two oil companies, looking for any dirty little corporate secrets that might muck up the deal if they came out. Making his film debut, Mazhar Munir is Wasim, a smart, young Pakistani migrant worker who accepts extremism and a suicide bomber's fate after the merger costs him his job on the oil fields.

Once again adopting the scattered, episodic structure of Traffic (and Soderbergh's handheld aesthetic), Gaghan ties their stories into a simulation of the Gordian knot that is the movie's subject matter. If only Gaghan had next cut through it.

He builds a thick, ugly, kill-or-be-killed atmosphere at a pace that's absorbing but hard to keep up with as facts and affiliations fly by. Clooney builds empathy with his troubled eyes and resigned gait, and Peet has a few good emotional moments, but the characters don't have a chance to register strongly amid the international dealing and conspiring. Except for Woodman's family, the details of their personal lives are just so much extra clutter.

Still, the film is interestingly cast, mostly well-crafted and almost never less than fascinating. Maybe the act of depicting elements of the oil industry without illuminating it was a conscious one on Gaghan's part, that Syriana's murky density is in keeping with its subject. But a truly revelatory film about it is yet to be made.

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